Chapter 23 - The Alien And The Friend For Life

The best thing that happened after the four including Sister Sue left for Cornwall has already appeared in this memoir, in the last three paragraphs of the chapter titled 'The Alien And The Impossibility Of Homosexuality'. There I describe how I came to receive counselling for the first time. Though in those paragraphs it is set out without the backdrop of me having read the Dorothy Rowe book, having had the argument after the under-prepared party, but including after Mother dropped the bombshell about my mental health and why I was sent to a mysterious boarding school where part of the mystery up to that point had been about why I was sent there being withheld from me in such a way as stopped me being able to ask why.

I was at the parental house a short time after Shaun and friends had left so disagreeably, and blown a the biggest hole in my life that I could imagine with their departure. I was looking for the sellotape in a cupboard with just Mother about. She was surely speculating and hardly daring to ask me, how I thought Sister Sue might be getting on? What Sue might be doing and where was she? This might explain why the mood between Mother and I was oddly detached, offhand even. I might well have been speculating on how Shane was getting on and missing him for all that I had a major role in his leaving. If Mother had asked me about my sister I would have answered her with confidence. Sister Sue was having a lot better time away then she had been having up to the time she left.

Before she left she had worked full time in a factory for probably a couple of years where she assembled the small brass parts for fire extinguishers, that got fixed, one part to another. Many a night Sue came home and had to soak her feet in hot water to get the fine particles of brass that embedded themselves there out her feet so that she could walk comfortably and without poisoning herself with the fine metal shavings still in her feet the next day. My sister was caught in how the local labour market operated where to get around the law of equal pay for equal work for both genders employers (who were always men) never employed men on menial jobs that they wanted done cheaply by women. It may also be true that no male would work for so little, but that was a mot point-employers refused to accept men as employees on 'women's pay rates'. Women were apparently easily persuaded to accept less money. Not only was their pay low, but the women were easier to persuade to endure conditions that were surely illegal and never seek help from any union, however ill and unable to work they might become. They could endure for the same reasons they endured never being the heads of the household they lived in and surely earned the right to be; they endured men always expecting to be in charge. Whereas if a male did a dirty job for inadequate money and fell ill because of it then as head of his household he would more likely feel that he was within his rights to seek reparations and external support.

Whilst reaching for the sellotape and being unable to see into where I was searching I pulled out a fourteen year old letter that had been stuffed away and left, apparently randomly. It detailed that in May 1972 I had been accepted for a place in a boarding school and I was to start there in September of that year. Ever since I had returned from that school, nine years earlier, Mother had always been sufficiently cagey about what the boarding school was for and why I was sent there that I could barely tell that she was being cagey about with me. This time I had the letter and with the absence of my sister she was caught totally off-guard. She had to explain from scratch what the boarding school story was about as properly as she could on the spot. I finally understood what it was she was covering up; she had a great fear of anger in the house and aged ten I was angry and upset enough that even after I recovered enough from it, Social Services and my parents thought it best to hide from me that I had ever been angry and upset. To complete the vanishing trick of that part of my character they send me to 'a boarding school' 'for the maladjusted', though no such mental health condition existed. The term 'maladjusted' was a non-technical term for any number mental health symptoms or conditions that a child might generate according the culture they were exposed to. Up to a point it was 'one bad apple' theory, remove the bad apple and the rest are fine. As long as the label stuck to the child more than the culture labelled the family he came as 'abnormal', then the family the school, the scout pack etc, then the culture was absolved of all guilt, excused from examination.

At aged ten I had become inconsolable about something and I remained inconsolable until long after the initial cause of my distress had passed. As Mother knew from life with dad, any anger in a highly confined space was highly uncomfortable. That my anger might have been arisen from how confining the space I was in was, or how there might have been something going on in my life that she should have realised were points that she was not going to listen for or take account of back then, or since. To her as a parent, particularly with dad about, children were for providing for, watching, telling what to do, and last and least sometimes playing with to amuse them when dad was well out of the picture. But children were never there to be directly listened to. Particularly not when they were angry; anger was never to be rewarded because of the fear that it might invite more anger.

It was inevitable that anger was taboo in children-it forced the adults and parents around them to take notice when they did not want to pay the child the attention they demanded. As with the letter in my hand Mother described how I was age ten, well the usual victim type defences soon came into it. 'We did our best for you' and other bromides soon took over from her being awkwardly straight forward and honest with me. As usual, the words had the opposite effect to bromides upon me. I became angry again. The process of her apologies making me angry was both inevitable and unhelpful. Respite came in the shape of the Dorothy Rowe book. Because I had read and absorbed the Dorothy Rowe book I was more able to grasp the many implications of what Mother described, where she had 'reluctantly made choices' that she was now, perhaps genuinely, apologising for far faster than she realised.

When she had finished telling me what happened when I was ten, and apparently why it happened neither of us knew whether I was angry because of the events of fifteen years ago, or whether I angry and upset at how it had taken her fifteen years to find the right occasion to explain the situation to me. I could also have been angry and deeply upset because I felt that for all the time she had never told me this she had withheld from me the keys to my life, and laid waste to who I was by making me live out her lies by omission. With Sister Sue gone and Mother having to admit to the home truths I could have had some empathy for her. To have lost one child could be an accident, to lose the trust of a second so soon after the first child had gone was beginning to look like carelessness. I was in shock. For all the difference the conversation had made she could have presented me to the public as a live bomb with a ticking time clock on it. The only questions left were how and where I went off.

Three days later I went to the Christian arts festival 'Greenbelt' feeling horrible. On the last night I dragged myself off to the counselling tent and finally got the counselling that I was five or six years overdue after writing to the gay christian counselling organisation for so long. When I got there I recognised the name of my counsellor as the person I had been writing to and I got all the counselling that I could in the one three or four hour session. I must have exhausted the counsellor, I certainly felt exhausted myself. I held on to my worst delusions of one day being trainable as a nurse. I had to have something to hope for and I saw that as key to my exit plan out of the small town I was stuck in. After pouring out of fifteen years of grief and anger I made several other much more achievable decisions, where my life might change in other areas at the same time. I did not know how anything I wanted might pan out in the confined choices that I was returning to. I returned home still feeling rather strange and light headed about it all. I could have done with somebody like a counsellor when I returned to check in with. Up to a point I did have such a person. Sue Hethershaw was her name. She was a Quaker and she preferred to be called Suzie.

Talking with Suzie we agreed that the flat Mother had found for me was what was most in need of being changed. It was now a place full of ghosts that made me feel far less solid than I actually was. I was going to have to move to another flat where I could make a start that was the genuinely fresh. I was going to have to start afresh with Mother, and trust her but on a far more cautious basis; Mother had proven to be a blind guide and my trust in her had left me blind. The best point that Suzie made to me was how the flat had played it's part in helping me realise the limits of friendships with people my own age and younger, and how the flat had helped me find the truer, more grubby past, which until then my family had managed to disguised from themselves and me. I felt better for now having a life with holes in it, I was better off knowing why the holes were there, even they formed a history of disappointment.

Technically I still gay and in the closet, though I could now rattle the door handle on the door from the inside, I could tell myself that I gay with more confidence. Though from the feel of the shared life around me I could not say that to nobody else, though I could hint about it with Suzie. One of the mysteries that went with this new relative freedom was how many women in the town who were my mothers age and under who liked me as some sort of friend but with an agenda that was never spelled out. I often found I liked them when they shared an elegance and charm with me, and they liked to leave our exchanges at that. It was not just that they wanted the paradox of some innocent flirting, though that much was true. Even the lady who ran the local health shop had this coy, covertly asexual, agenda which remained friendly which was sometimes less covert and more sexual, as if she knew what I might like more than I could say. I will never forget the day she claimed that she was putting on a promotion in her shop without saying what it was. When I went along there was this lithe black bodybuilder promoting whey as food for bodybuilders dressed in nothing more than a pair of trunks. I was one of a group of fully dressed physically unimpressive specimens that he did a ritual muscle flexing show for in the rear corner of the shop whilst technically the shop was still open of a late Saturday afternoon. As I think of it now the whole thing baffles me. She was trying to be helpful and the display involved was more mild than freakish, and still it was about avoiding language, not giving myself ownership of my own wants, and quietly colluding with the completely heterosexual vibe of the town.

I had what some might call 'The Golden Girls' problem. 'The Golden Girls' was an American situation comedy that ran from 1985-92 on UK television. When I was in the closet I thought it was hilarious to watch four single mature women (three of them single, the other one had eloped/divorced from her husband) who were all retirement age. They all dated a fair number of men but always found greater companionship in each other. I had never seen 'accidental' celibacy depicted so positively and freely before. Nor had celibacy ever before been so much the cause for an inclusive and often rueful humour. This often included a sheer bitchiness that was laugh out loud funny, which was rare on television. When the men that any of them met always proved to be wash-outs you could sympathise with the women, value how they supported each other and wish you had friends like that. Between them all they did a rare type of innuendo which within the confines of their tightly defined shared set up seemed to be designed for closeted gay men to enjoy, and see themselves reflected in. Often the humour was not in what was said, it was more in a look or a slight response. But therein lay the trap. By definition the set up had to be asexual for it to justify being inclusively funny about sex. That worked very well inside the vacuum of a tightly scripted upbeat fiction of four independent wealthy women. But there was no such situation in real life, and no such tight script writing that real people followed. When this funny mirror of how I and others might be and live was there for twenty five minutes a week it exposed the lack of hope and realism in the rest of the week. The shared humour I had with the local mature women was no more than their wish that their husbands had more charm, which made me a pleasing prop for their wishes. Only once did a any man make a genuinely witty comment about my situation. He was one of the pub crowd, In private he said said to me 'You would make somebody a good wife.'. I half-knew what he meant, as a male I seemed to care more than most males did about what others thought, I was sensitive.

What I could not know was how in cities a just train ride away, but a world away from me, there were small open scenes based around gay pubs and other settings where gay men were much more 'out' than I was. There were women who liked them and tended to be nearer the age of the 'out' gay man where the friendship between them was real enough. But part of the reciprocity between the female to the male was that the female provided the gay male with the appearance to society that he was heterosexual in an inclusive way when they went about in public together when in actual fact both knew he was gay and she did not admire men being macho towards her, as to claim her. There were several key differences to the city life when Suzie and I talked. I was not 'out' so she could not consciously be 'heterosexual cover' for me. She had no comprehension of gay mores and values in other places, and if she clearly recognised my homosexuality than she poorly understood it, beyond wanting me to be less obviously compromised and trapped in how I lived. She saw how keen-but-out-of-place I sometimes seemed to be with other people, particularly obviously masculine heterosexual men who my age and older. Part of me did wish that I could be heterosexual for her, in spite of the age difference between us. But wishes are not enough with sexual matters and it hurt me to learn of the impossibility of my being heterosexual. But it was a good hurt, a sign of growing up into a more honest acceptance of myself.

Sue said that she first saw me when I was five and Mother was gripping my hand. I was struggling to keep up as Mother marched though the town. There was something about the body language that Sue saw in Mother that said to her 'There will be trouble ahead for that young man in future.'. I first knew Sue fifteen years later when we were both in the newly formed CND and I was their first secretary. She was secretary sometime after I ceased to be, and another long term secretary like me. Whilst it was good for me to find an ally in the older generation ally it took a lot more than a shared view of politics to get to know her well. Once Mother came with me to visit Suzie. I hoped with the visit that there could be some spark of friendship there. But there was not, and the undercurrent of an apparent lack of curiosity between them was hard to read but it may well have concealed from me a certain low key hostility. Since 1984 I had been a regular helper and a friend to Suzie. In return she treated me like the son who she had lost, and then found again. It was now her turn to help me and help both of us. Through networks that she had she found me my next flat. Like Mother's networks, local was best and my new address was two minutes walk from Sue's big and slightly derelict three storey council house in which I had painted various rooms that were most used to make them seem more habitable.

How I lost closeness with Mother and came to trust Suzie more fully is illustrated by one small action I made that I did not realise was meant to set me free of Mother, but it did. In the second paragraph of Chapter Nineteen in this memoir 'The Alien Kicks Against the Pricks Of False Cheer' I wrote about the letters that Mother sent to me in the boarding school, 1972-77. In all the time up to when Mother had the confessional conversation with me about why I was sent she had taught me to see these letters as precious heirlooms, as part of a life where they were proof of her affections for me. I found the letters as I was tidying up before moving out on the last day of the tenancy. They were in two or three bundles with an elastic band round them. I had time before I was due to hand the key for the flat over to Mother for the last time. She was in the shop downstairs. I looked at the bundles and I could not think what to do with them. So much was changed in the two months or so from when Shaun arrived back for what became that last time, and all that had happened since, culminating the counselling well away from anywhere it was ever going to be repeated. I was now starting a life that was both a lot emptier and a lot less false than all previous lives I had accepted.

I left the letters behind on the mantle piece in the big flat for the next occupant to do what they wanted with. To me they were no longer worth the paper they were written on, though much much later I did speculate on what the content of the letter might have been.

For the next two years Suzie was a close neighbour, mentor, and friend rather than the letter writer in absentia who promised much and provided much in many ways, but always disguised how much she was not giving through how she appeared to give. I still saw Mother, but in the new arrangement we both settled at a more guarded social distance from each other. Because I rarely felt forced to empathise with her I felt that where we did empathise and help each other then it was surely more genuine. Suzie and I became friends and apparently close confidantes for the rest of her life.

In October of 2012 I rang her up to ask how she was. Where previously we had lifted each other's spirits on the phone from the second sentence each of us spoke this time she sounded stricken, as if she was wounded beyond despair. Very briefly she asked me to not ring again. I was stunned. A friend of hers rang me five days later and told me that Suzie had died two days after my last call, aged 79. Afterwards I was further given more detail of her life prior to her death. It was not just old age she had died of, she had suffered somewhat in her marriage and with the family of her husband. But she had always enjoyed how we communicated. I was surprised to learn later how much of her home situation she held back from telling me because I was space just for her outside of where she lived, I could not get my head around he she kept me and her family so apart. When I was told it there was nothing I could have done to change her situation I settled the matter with myself, by believing that to have known and shared with anyone, whatever they held back, though thick and thin for thirty three years should be counted as a personal shared triumph.

Finally, Suzie was the person who first believed that I could write, even before I imagined that I could write anything longer than a long letter, and I wrote her many. One of the comments that she must often have held back from saying to me was 'I wish you were a better editor', but then if I were a good editor then I would surely have wished that I had made a better editor of my own life.

This memoir is dedicated to the memory of her faith in me which became the substance of both our hopes, started long after she was there to see it come to fruition.

Find the introduction and chapter guide here.

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