Up until the age of sixteen, my reading matter is almost entirely comics (as previously mentioned) and science fiction or fantasy. A few variations – Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series for example (Armada Paperbacks in the UK, cover artwork by Gerry Haylock [see cover to the Green Ghost and the next couple of books here], who drew the Doctor Who comic strip in Countdown comic in the seventies, trivia fans), but that was pretty much it.
At around sixteen, though, I am hit by a double dose of Thomas Hardy, and am instantly smitten. We study Far From the Madding Crowd for O-level English Literature and I am also knocked out by the film, which is shown on television over Christmas. Even on a primitive colour television, Julie Christie and the landscape are just breathtaking. If you have never seen it, go and do so … it has barely dated at all.
We get a bit more Hardy at A-level, but by then I am devouring the novels anyway. Later when I get to University, the tutor who discusses Hardy with us is very dismissive, both of his prose style (unfair) but also because the plotlines seem to her to be full of implausible coincidences and a succession of ironies. Dear reader, guess what … life is full of implausible coincidences and a succession of ironies. Let me tell you a tale …
I have already mentioned that Nigel and myself both adore S–, and have shared that information with each other. One advantage from my perspective is that unlike many girls in our year, she is about my height. But looking back, I think the real reason I like her is she is the first girl I manage to see properly as a person. She is pretty, but she is also funny, and warm, and characterful. And both Nigel and myself think she is wasted on D–.
In the autumn of 1975 we enter the Sixth Form. Both Nigel and myself have totted up a decent collection of O-levels. At A-level Nigel has opted for sciences and I have selected the slightly wacky combination of English, Maths and Music. S– is still going out with D– at the outset of the Sixth Form, but at some stage (I forget precisely when) that changes. I am a little light on the detail of the circumstances that lead up to the Hardyesque moment because I am, necessarily, absent from some of the key moments, but I think these are the essentials:
- S– breaks up with D–, but for a while this is not public knowledge.
- There is a Biology field trip (I forget to where), which both Nigel and S– go on.
- While on the field trip, delving among rock pools I think, Nigel and S– fall for each other.
- While this is happening, I am at home, oblivious to developments.
During the week of Nigel and S–‘s absence, my feelings for her have grown stronger. I decide to ask her out. But because I am a shy idiot, I am too scared to do this in person, or on the phone. So I decide to write her a letter, explaining my feelings in painful detail and wondering whether she might imagine feeling the same way about me.
The order of the next stages is as follows. Nigel and S– return to school the following week. I write the letter, and post it on Friday morning on the way to catch the bus to school. There is a postbox next to the bus stop which, on one memorable and spectacular occasion, the local bus driver carelessly crashes into. On this day it is in good shape, and I post away, First Class stamp on the letter.
I greet Nigel and we get on the bus together. Later, at lunchtime I think, he tells me that S– and he are now going out. My first thought is “How is this possible, as both of us are incapable of landing girlfriends, let alone the girlfriend I also want”. So he has resigned from our club of nerdish loners! The second thought, an instant later, is of the letter I have just posted. Undone by the Royal Mail for a second time!
Once again, I don’t think entirely rationally about this. Instead I try to think of ways of undoing the undoable. So that night, I phone S– at home, and tell her I have written a letter. “Oh really?”, she says. Yes, I say. I can’t tell you what’s in it, and when you receive it … please don’t open it. “Right-o”, she says.
I ask to meet her the next day – she has a Saturday job at Fishpools, a grungy little department store in nearby Waltham Cross. Which in fact once led to her best line ever, although you have to know your UK department stores to get it. She works in the China department close to the entrance of the store. One day, a customer comes up to her and asks “Do you sell fridges?”. To which she replies with astonishment at the apparent stupidity of the customer, “Selfridges?No, this is Fishpools!” Anyway …
We meet on her lunch break. We go to the roof of the multi-storey car park opposite to talk. I can’t remember most of the details, or whether or not she read the letter. But I can remember her saying that she assumed I wouldn’t want to hang around with Nigel now he is going out with her. Why wouldn’t I, I reply? He’s my friend. My response seems to make her thoughtful, which probably reflects well on both of us.
In fact, Nigel and I remain fast friends throughout the Sixth Form, and I become better friends with S– as well for a time, but that friendship is always a difficult one because I wish them both well but still carry a torch for her; I still have a tendency to use TV comedy wooing techniques, even though they are hopeless; and I still have a low opinion of myself and my transness is still lurking. So as the Sixth Form progresses, paradoxically I make more and more friends and start to feel more and more deeply lonely. For S– in the end I think I become something of a trial, for which I am very sorry as we used to like each other a lot. If by any chance you ever read this S–, you will at least know that things were much more complicated for me than you might have imagined they were.
And Nigel? He moved back to Yorkshire over 20 years ago. I was Best Man at his wedding and I am proud that he is still my friend.