If any of this going to make sense, and I want it to, then I need to give you some background. Think of it as a prologue if you like, I promise to keep it short.
I was born at the tail end of the 1960’s, the only child of parents who were as astonished by my arrival as I was myself. They called me Elizabeth on my birth certificate, but I was never anything but Lizzie. Mum and Dad were both unreconstructed Hippies, although the need to pay the rent forced them to abandon their Patchouli oil and Afghan coats. Dad taught biology at the local comprehensive and grew weed in our greenhouse, tucked discretely behind the garden shed. Mum was a social worker, but the depressing diet of despair and heartless bureaucracy was too much so she quit joining a feminist collective. They were harmless idealists working for a revolution they both rather dreaded.
Mom was thirty-nine when I showed up to disrupt their suburban compromise. Neither of them had ever given the slightest thought to children and if they had they’d probably have concluded it was some sort of ecological crime. Yet, against all the odds they turned out to be the best parents anyone ever had, always treating me as an equal, someone not just seen but heard. Of course, I didn’t appreciate this until I went to school and saw how the other parents herded their children around like recalcitrant sheep.
By contrast, Mum and Dad were devout liberals. I had levels of freedom that horrified other parents and left my schoolmates in a near-permanent state of awe. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a spoilt brat whose every whim was indulged, they simply trusted me and it never occurred to me to let them down. We were a team, they always included me, never ridiculed my opinions and never seemed to tire of listening to the rambling accounts of my day. It made me feel grown-up, different from my contemporaries who seemed childish and petty by comparison.
Every afternoon Mum would pick me up from school dressed in dungarees, her hair dyed shocking pink or orange, or whichever colour took her fancy. These were the days of militant feminism and that was pretty much the uniform at the ‘collective’ where we’d spend the rest of the afternoon. It never failed to provoke muttering disapproval from the teachers and parents, but Mum enjoyed winding them up.
Looking back at it now the ‘collective’ was more of a social club for a small group of women who didn’t fit with the roles society had assigned them. I remember the occasional heated political discussions about the oppression of women, usually led by ‘aunty’ Brenda who was always trying to get the others to go on demonstrations. These sounded quite exciting, particularly when she would recount her latest arrests after chaining herself to various railings and statues, but she never managed to persuade the others to join her. They were content drinking coffee, chatting about books or films, and indulging in passionate romantic intrigues with each other. Mum was the exception, she never bought into the whole lesbian feminist thing, though she never questioned their choices.
As an after school playground, the ‘collective’ was pretty unusual. The women always made a big fuss of me and became my extended family. I think they saw me as the future, someone who would grow up in a society where women would be equal and free. It was the last flicker of idealism before the world turned it’s back on the sixties and returned to its default state. To me, it was normal everyday life, afternoons with my aunties, home for tea and helping Dad in his greenhouse until bedtime.
It was for the most part a happy time, but when you’re seven years old even the best adult company falls short. As much as they fussed and attended to me I always felt one step behind, unable to understand their preoccupations or truly engage them in mine. Although I couldn’t put a name to it then, I was lonely amidst all that chaotic bustle. The problem was made worse by Mum’s unconventional lifestyle, which provoked the other mothers at school and made me a virtual outcast among my classmates. The name-calling ranged from ‘weirdo’ and ‘hippy’ through ‘dyke’ and ‘lesbo’ (used with mutual incomprehension), to the barely coherent ‘smelly’. The teachers intervened when they couldn’t avoid hearing but even at seven, I sensed their reluctance.
Of course, I told Mum and Dad, and while they were angry, they did their best to support me. Patiently explaining how the children were ignorant and their parent’s narrow-minded attitudes were the problem. They were being mean because they were jealous of us and how we were trying to build a better society for everyone. To be honest it was all a bit over my head but I got the jealous part and that helped me to deal with it. Rather than cowering under their insults, I made a point of playing up all the freedom I had compared to their circumscribed lives. Slowly but surely the bullying transformed into sulking jealousy and I watched with some satisfaction as the seeds I had sown bloomed into countless petty squabbles between parents and my schoolmates over what I had and they didn’t. For a time it made me feel better but the faint underscore of loneliness remained until the day Denise arrived mid-way through the summer term.
Her father was an actor in a popular soap opera and once the other kids realised her Dad was famous they all scrambled for her attention. We didn’t have a TV at home so I had no idea what all the fuss was about. What impressed me was the way she shrugged them all off as if they were a minor irritation. Then, to my amazement, she walked up to me and said, “I’m Denise, want to be friends?” It was so unexpected I was momentarily struck dumb. She didn’t seem to notice, even at seven, her confidence was amazing, she had decided we were going to be best friends and didn’t need a response.
Denise grabbed my hand and led me to the far corner of the playground away from the astonished mob. I remember her launching into some hilarious story about her Dad and at some point, I must have caught up. I told her my name and gave a vague account of my family, half afraid I would scare her away. On the contrary, she seemed genuinely interested, drawing out more detail than I’d ever shared with anyone. When I told her about Mum’s ‘club’ she positively begged me to take her with us after school. I was horrified, convinced it would cost me the only potential friend I’d ever found.
When Mum showed up to that afternoon, she’d had a particularly creative session with the crazy colour and her hair was a vivid red bisected by a streak of blue. I cringed, embarrassed for the first time by my lovely Mum. Denise didn’t bat an eyelid, she waltzed up to Mum and began chatting away like they were old friends. Mum was as bemused as I had been, but that quickly passed and she soon seemed as taken with my new friend as me.
We duly went to the ‘club’ and Denise charmed everyone. For the first time, I felt the pang of jealousy. She was so vivacious I felt sure she would flit out of my life the moment she realised how dull I was. Thankfully that didn’t happen. As she predicted we became best friends and for the next four years, we were pretty much inseparable. It was a passionate friendship filled with shared secrets and innocent adventures, that came to an abrupt end. Denise’s father got a part in an American TV show, which meant the family had to move to California. We were both distraught at parting and for all our promises to stay in touch, I knew my loneliness would return like an unwelcome companion. Mum and Dad understood my distress better than I did, they could see where I was going and were predictably untroubled. All they’ve cared about was my happiness.
Despite all the upset, my exam results were good and I was offered an interview at a highly rated Catholic girls school. Mum came with me and made a special effort to tone down her usual appearance, picking up a horribly drab dress from Oxfam that made her look like Julie Andrews at the start of The Sound Of Music. Still channelling Julie she waxed lyrical about her devout faith and I had a hard time not bursting out laughing. The headmistress had heard it all before and let Mum venture way beyond her comfort zone before putting her out of her misery and announcing I was accepted.
I’m not sure whether placing me in an all-girls school was by accident or design, but whatever the reason it was a mixed blessing. Academically it was great, it helped me discover an aptitude for maths that took me to university. On a personal level, it was something else. As I hit puberty the inchoate feelings that had bound me to Denise came into focus and I realised I was attracted to girls. Thanks to Mum and Dad I made this discovery without any sense of shame but I was alert enough to social norms to make no public declarations. Ironically in the hot-house atmosphere of a single-sex environment, flirtations and passionate friendships were a common occurrence. I, however, didn’t dare succumb to the obvious temptation sensing that there was a distinction between what I felt and the behaviour of my friends.
Fortunately, my time with Denise had gifted me the necessary social skills to fit in with the other girls. I was popular, had a tight group of friends and was well-liked. The only separation I felt was emotional and, increasingly, sexual. There’s a certain irony being attracted to and surrounded by girls when you can’t show any interest, let alone act. Mum sensed my frustration and in one crushingly embarrassing episode when I was in my late teens, handed me a feminist tract on the joys of masturbation. Needless to say, I’d already worked that trick out myself.
Everything changed in my final year. I had just turned seventeen when our biology teacher Mrs Smith got pregnant and they had to bring in a supply teacher. Miss Harris, who insisted we all called her Stacy, was only a year out of teacher training and drop-dead gorgeous. At least I thought so. I couldn’t stop staring at her through every class. I made sure I was always seated at the front and was the first to volunteer whenever she needed a helper. My friends all thought I was angling for a better grade, but my diary tells a different story. Reading the entries now, embellished as they are with numerous decorative renditions of ‘Stacy’ surrounded by flowers and hearts, they blaze with teenage lust, thinly veiled by a romantic obsession. I was completely in love with Stacy.
It didn’t take her long to work this out but rather than provoking the disgust or rejection I expected, she seemed rather flattered. She accepted my help in class, befriended me and, by way of thanks, even invited me for coffee in the local cafe. Despite my eagerness to please her at any cost, I was surprised to find we had lots in common. Gradually we became friends, hanging out shopping, drinking endless coffees and even seeing the occasional movie. All the time my adoration grew more intense. I longed for her to kiss me. But she never did.
Eventually, my obsession got the better of me. One Saturday morning I turned up on her doorstep in floods of tears. She took me inside, sat me down with a mug of coffee and allowed me to blurt out my pitiful declaration of undying love. Although she was only six years older than me she handled it with sensitivity that was amazing. She took the mug from my shaking hands and folded me in her arms, allowing me to sob myself into some ragged state of calm. Then she sat back and wiped the tears from my cheeks. She told me I was beautiful, that she cared for me too but we could never be more than friends. I was confused, I tried to protest. She insisted it would be a breach of trust, it would destroy both our lives and hurt the people we loved. As much as I hated to, I had to agree. The thought of hurting Mum and Dad, as well as Stacy, was too much to bear. I think it was the first adult decision of my life and doing the right thing didn’t make it any less awful.
The rest of that final term passed in a blur. I buried myself in my books. Friends tried to drag me out to parties, but their single-minded obsession with boys only mocked my predicament. I made excuses and they eventually gave up trying. I’d decided getting good exam results and going to university was the only means of escape from my present misery.
It was a bleak period graced only by the fact my unhappiness expressed itself in stellar grades and I was offered a place to read maths at a top university. Somehow, amidst my parents’ delight and the somewhat scary prospect of moving to a strange city, my self-absorbed angst began to lift. I was launching into the unknown and in my heart, I knew that whatever it would be like, a new life awaited me. I wasn’t wrong.
The first surprise was that after six years in an all-girls school I found myself in a mixed hall of residence. You might imagine I felt uncomfortable, but quite the contrary. It was fun having boys around, I enjoyed their company and they reminded me of all those hours I spent talking with Dad. It was also easier than hanging out with the other girls, where my need for affection was bound to be more transparent.
I became firm friends with my next-door neighbour Ben, who had a vast record collection and a wicked sense of humour. We seemed to click right away, constantly wandering in and out of each other’s rooms like flatmates. I could see the other girls assumed we were a couple and before long it became obvious that Ben was thinking along the same lines. In a moment of panic, not wanting to lose my friend or expose myself, I invented a boyfriend who was at another university. Ben seemed to take it in his stride, I think he’d only been responding to social pressure rather than libido. Naturally, ‘Steve’ my fictional partner provoked questions and I had to draw heavily on my experience with Stacy, backed up with a photo of the brother of one of my school friends. I felt bad about lying to Ben, but it seemed to do the trick and we carried on as before. It also helped fend off other boys when we went to parties, though I couldn’t help feeling jealous as everyone began pairing off and having what appeared to be lavish amounts of sex.
Then the inevitable happened, a group of us went to a gig and Ben hooked up with one of the other girls. I couldn’t blame him, I was in his way, and after all, I had ‘Steve’ waiting for me. As they peeled off from the group he offered me a half-embarrassed smile and I was on my own. I don’t think anyone noticed as I slipped outside. Resigned and almost tearful I slumped against the wall, the brickwork vibrated with the effort to contain the deafening music. I emptied the beer bottle I’d been clutching and carelessly tossed it aside, to miserable to care.
“You lost your boyfriend?”
Startled, I looked up. The girl was about my height with shoulder-length blond hair. She was wearing a leather biker jacket over a dark print mini dress, black tights and those short boots people wear for horse riding. She looked vaguely familiar, I’d seen her around the campus.
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“So why are you crying?”
I cuffed tears from my face embarrassed to be caught, angry at the intrusion.
“Leave me alone”
She stepped closer, casually tucking stray hair behind her ear and tilting her head to one side.
“I’m Agnieszka, I’ve seen you in the library. You work a lot.”
She was smiling now, standing really close. Her grey eyes held me and I began to feel nervous. I wanted to get away but somehow couldn’t. She seemed to read my every tormented impulse.
“You’re very beautiful.”
She reached out and her hand caressed my cheek. I felt paralysed, hardly daring to believe this was happening. After so many years of unrequited longing, this had a surreal quality more like an alcohol-fuelled hallucination. I swayed like a tipsy marionette as her fingers traced the outline of my lips and the fog of denial refused to clear. She smiled, leaned forward, and kissed me.
Words can’t describe the shock of her soft lips meeting mine. I was Sleeping Beauty awakened with a defibrillator, stumbling into blinding light, bewildered, frightened and exhilarated all at once. Without thinking, I pulled her closer, I had a mad urge to cling to her. I kissed her back with all the clumsy enthusiasm of someone trying to make up for lost time. Then I felt her tongue push between my lips and invade my mouth. I know it sounds odd but I’d never knew people kissed like that. Her tongue sought out mine, darting and caressing, filling me with her sweet unfamiliar taste. I tried to respond in kind, ineptly playing catch up like someone dragged to the dance floor with two left feet.
As we kissed, Agnieszka eased her thigh between my legs, pressing the tight seam of my jeans into my groin. I squeezed around her holding her in place, only the fear of revealing my desperation preventing me from shamelessly rubbing against her. I was in a clumsy adolescent frenzy, trying to absorb every new experience, so utterly lost in the moment that I didn’t notice that the band had finished and people were starting to file out of the club.
Agnieszka disentangled herself from me and raised a finger to her lips indicating the emerging crowd. It took me a moment to understand and when I did a reckless part of me didn’t care. Before I had a chance to process any of this she grabbed my hand and led me into the throng. We headed for the night bus with the rest of the students and she began chatting about the band as if we were old friends returning from a gig. I was a complete mess, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck and was expected to brush myself off and carry on as if nothing had happened. I wanted to say something if only to convince myself it wasn’t some mad hallucination, but the words wouldn’t come.
The bus was packed with students all making their way back to halls of residence, most were pretty wasted, slurring their way through aimless conversations or passed out. Agnieszka dragged me to the back of the upper deck and we squeezed into a corner seat, her body once again pressing into mine. I stared out of the window avoiding eye contact, already feeling betrayed by her casual attitude. She slipped her hand into mine.
“You haven’t told me your name. I can’t keep calling you library girl.”
The word “keep” was enough to make me look back at her, searching her face for some sign of hope. She grinned at me.
“Well, is it a secret?”
“Lizzie, my name’s Lizzie. It’s short for Elizabeth, but I prefer..”
“Yes” I felt like an idiot but she squeezed my hand and now I was smiling too.
“Back at the club.. I thought you’d changed your mind.” She shook her head then leaned forward and kissed me. I blushed, glancing around the bus to see if anyone had noticed — they hadn’t.
“Sometimes its good to be careful.”
I saw her point but my parent’s liberal ideals still chaffed against the notion of hiding. There was no easy answer. She could see my unease.
I sighed, “I don’t want to hide, I’m not ashamed.”
“Good. So, you will invite me for coffee?”
I kissed her by way of reply and was rewarded by some good-natured cheers from a couple of lads watching us from down the bus. Needless to say, I turned a vivid shade of red.
After an eternity the bus arrived at the campus and everyone piled off heading for the various halls. I felt incredibly awkward, I had no idea what she expected of me or how easily I might disappoint her. I gestured to my block.
“It’s this way.”
Agnieszka took my hand and followed me towards the ugly grey concrete building. To fill the conversation void I added.
“It’s not as bad as it looks, the rooms really are OK.”
“You should see the Warsaw suburbs, this is a palace.”
It was the first time she’d mentioned anything about herself. I wanted to know more but this was hardly the time. The lift was broken so we walked up the echoey stairwell to the first floor and along the corridor towards my room. As we passed Ben’s door I could hear Lionel Ritchie accompanied by the insistent tap of a headboard against the concrete wall. Agnieszka grinned.