The argument that precipitated my leaving home was as pathetic and meaningless as anything else that happened in those days. My mother came screaming through the house with a broomstick, saying she was going to kill me, over nothing (really, it was nothing), and my sister said, ‘You can’t stay here.’
That was Boxing Day. The next day, my future brother-in-law came round with brother and his van, and we loaded up all my worldly goods, including my bicycle, and we drove down to Herne Bay in Kent, where my sister was living with her then-boyfriend (Graeme) and another housemate (Goose) while she completed her third and final year at Kent University. The only thing that kept me from going mad, back then, was the knowledge that most people actually liked me, found me funny and interesting, and it was only my parents who seemed to hate the very air I breathed.
Herne Bay is the kind of seaside town that has been missing its Victorian heyday since its Victorian heyday. Never as popular as Margate, Ramsgate, or the nearby genteel Whitstable, Herne Bay was a dead end seaside town with a pebbled beach and a seafront of retirement homes. There was a Safeway supermarket and a Post Office and an unemployment benefit office: not much else.
I signed on. This was a moment of liberation: the idea that I could leave home and my means of support and simply register as unemployed in order to be paid enough to stay alive was something that hadn’t ever occurred to me. Of course, I wasn’t entitled to proper Unemployment Benefit and got Income Support instead, a mere £20-something per week, as long as I signed on at my appointment time and confirmed that I hadn’t done any work in the intervening seven days. I think it might have been £24, which was allocated as follows: £7 towards the rent; £7 towards the bills; £7 towards food; and £3 for me to spend on whatever.
My sister was on her grant, which was supposed to be supplemented by my Dad, except of course he took the opportunity to cut her off because she’d taken me in. In the meantime, Graeme, coming from a more working class background (father was a Kentish coal miner) was on a full grant, and Goose, who came from a terribly middle class family and had been to a fee-paying school, was victim of his father’s financial cleverness, only getting his full payment when the tax rebate came in (his father being too tightfisted to pay him upfront).
So we were poverty stricken. A roast chicken (between my sister, Graeme and me) would last for at least three meals. My staple would be the bowl of rice with black pepper, and (on days of luxury) a bit of grated East German cheddar. We kept the electricity bill down by never using the storage radiators in the house, and heating the place instead with fallen branches we found in the woods next door. So, until the spring, we were mainly cold, and often hungry, but I was happy there.
We lived in a bungalow owned by a wealthy farmer on the Thornden Wood Road, which ran between Herne Bay and Canterbury. It was the middle of nowhere. We had a telephone but didn’t use it because we couldn’t afford to, and our only means of motorised transport was Graeme’s always unreliable Kawasaki motorcycle. Then there was my 5-gear (!) road bicycle and Goose’s more impressive road bike (he even had proper shoes with cleats).
A visit to Canterbury involved me cycling in, chaining up the bike, and meeting up with the others in the Debenhams tea rooms, or wherever. For the occasional, rare, treat, we’d all go over to The Gate Inn (in Boyden Gate, near Chislet), where they served in-house Gateburgers or sausage sandwiches in doorsteps of crusty white bread.
Those months (it was no more than nine, before the landlord insisted we leave because his ‘son wanted to live there’ – that was his legal recourse for evicting us, probably untrue) were characterised by writing: either my own attempts at fiction or poetry, or letters (after letter, after letter), and learning to be alone without sinking into despair. In many ways, those nine months were the happiest of my life, as I was allowed to be myself without the malign influence of my permanently angry, depressive, mother. I grew into myself more, became more of a person and less of a nest of needs.
I took up smoking: because of course when it was the last thing I could afford on £24 a week, spending money on 10 Silk Cut was a sensible thing to do. I smoked in the back yard when nobody else was around: it was out of boredom, in a spirit of experimentation, and so I could pose.
To begin with, the thing I enjoyed most, inevitably, was the drama of having left home. The shocked reactions, the reported statements of beloved (and not so beloved) teachers. The rumours that the head teacher of my school had been about to make enquiries about slanderous statements I’d supposedly made.
(This last was a puzzle, and remains so, though I’ve come to see it as an early example of spin: rather than enquiring as to my welfare or questioning my parents treatment of me, the Head decided to pretend I was about to be expelled anyway. The status quo was thus preserved, and no awkward questions asked.)
The letters started. Various girls, of course. But most surprising to me was the first letter I got from John, which was an outpouring of emotion about how much he loved and was missing me. It drew us closer, unbreakably so for a number of years. It was completely unexpected from my (self-absorbed) perspective, but I reciprocated with abandon. I also started to get them from Paula, her of the unplugged pinball machine, who wrote the funniest and newsy letters I ever did see.
I also got letters from Steven Rose, friend of a friend of red-headed Fiona, and from some of the girls at Bejam, though not many and not for long.
I had letters coming out of my ears, really, there would be at least one, sometimes more, every day, and the postman was clearly amused by the whole thing. He was most amused and intrigued by the best letters of them all: those from Linda, which would arrive in pink envelopes, written on Paperchase pink stationery, and sprayed with a gentle hint of perfume.
Wow. She did it because she was lovely and knew I would like it. Her letters were so precious to me, I can feel tears in my eyes as I think about what I lost when they stopped. I think she was the most regular of all my correspondents, too, writing at least once a week. In the end, I had a small suitcase full of letters, and unzipping it would release the aroma of Linda’s perfume, god love her.
John came down to see me a couple of times. He’d got his motorbike by then, I think. One time, he came down for a day with Sean and another kid, in Sean’s little Fiesta. But the most precious and important visit was that of Linda, who came during one of the school holidays. It may have been Easter, or one of the half-term holidays, maybe Whitsun. I’m not sure, though I remember it being cold enough at night that she borrowed my big blue baggy jumper.
When I think back: she was in Year 13, final exams coming up fast, and she took time to come down to see me in Kent and stay a night or two. Without John. They were still a couple, but she came down on her own on the train. Graeme met her at the station on his Kawasaki. It was very exciting. We hitch-hiked into Canterbury to wander about a bit. We didn’t manage to get a lift back, so we walked the whole way, holding hands. We had long talks. And we shared the bedroom at night.
I was sleeping, chastely, on an army-style camp bed in a sleeping bag, and she had my single bed. As I said, it was cold enough for her to borrow the jumper, though it might have been that cold in May: Kent pokes out into the North Sea and gets the North wind all the way down from the Russian Steppes. Oddly, she didn’t seem to have anything else to wear in bed: there was the jumper, which she wore over her underwear. I remember her lovely brown legs swinging under the sheets.
I’m not kidding myself: she chose John, and probably trusted me not to make a move on her. Did I want to? I didn’t allow myself to. Those months in Kent were characterised by learning not to desire anything. When you have to get by on £24 a week, you have to train yourself not to want stuff. Linda wasn’t stuff but she was out of my reach.
Some time after, Paula too made noises about coming to see me. But, she said, it was awkward because her Dad wouldn’t let her travel on her own. So we had to arrange an elaborate ruse. One of my sisters (who worked for the telephone exchange, back when it was the GPO and pre-privatisation), arranged a phone call in which my sister’s boyfriend Graeme had to phone Paula’s Dad pretending to be my dad, and saying that, as they were coming down to Kent to visit me, they’d be happy to give Paula a lift. Graeme was acutely embarrassed to do this, but a good sport, and it was all arranged. Paula would arrive by train and I’d meet her at the station in Herne Bay, then Phone Graeme to come pick her up on the motorbike.
So it was that I cycled down to Herne Bay to meet the trains from London that morning: several times. Nobody arrived. The disappointment was crushing, and there was no word from Paula.
A few days later: a letter. Terribly sorry, she wrote, but the whole thing had been exposed when her Dad, thoughtfully, had phoned my Dad to offer him petrol money, only to discover that there was no planned visit and that the phone call had been a fake.
The subterfuge. The lies. And there she was, caught.
But there was more to this story. Summer came, and a kind of thaw. The days in Kent were numbered. My parents were going on holiday, and needed a house sitter. Would I…? I agreed. A week back in Dunstable, meeting up with old friends, who’d just finished their ‘A’ levels and were high on life. A party, seeing everyone, home the hero, all that.
And we were there, out in Dunstable, on a pub crawl, and we went into the Crown (not one of our usual haunts). It was packed, and across the room, there she was: Paula. I called her name. I wasn’t sure if she heard, or if she saw me. She wore – or didn’t – contact lenses, an you could never tell whether she could see you. But out in the street, later that night, we met one of her friends, Sally with the red hair, who stopped us with glee and exchanged greetings.
‘Did you hear about Paula?’ she said.
‘What about Paula?’
‘She arranged for her boyfriend to stay the weekend when her mum and Dad were away. She lied to them and said she was going to see you, but invited him round instead. And then her parents came home early and caught them…’
So the phone call from Graeme had been support of a different lie: that she was going to be away that weekend, too. And where was I? I was a consequence-free victim of the scheme, a distant friend who would do what she asked, and could be fobbed off with a letter containing a fake story, a couple of days later.
My pinball machine was well and truly unplugged.
She didn’t imagine, I suppose, that Sally would ever get the opportunity to share the story with me, in person.
And even now, I don’t know: what was true?
You should see a psychiatrist.
My Dad’s a psychiatrist.