My Old Flame

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It was at the village fete that I saw her. I had just emerged from the main tent, after judging the sponge cake competition — a solemn duty for the parish vicar’s wife — and there she was, 20 yards away from me, paying for a go at the coconut shie. She looked even slimmer than I remembered her as a teenager. I thought at first that her short, spiky hair had turned prematurely grey; then I realised, with little surprise, that she’d actually dyed it silver, with the odd darker streak for contrast. She was wearing a black T-shirt with the ugly motif of some heavy metal group on the front, a denim waistcoat which flapped as she threw, and skin-tight black leather trousers tucked into biker boots, silver buckles at the side. A silver skull and crossbones glinted in her ear lobe. Every inch the diesel dyke. Feeling faint with shock, I nearly turned away, ducked into the crowd, joined the audience milling around the country dancing stage. In some ways I wish I had — I could have just gone on with my nice simple life, and perhaps everything would have stayed the same. No, of course it wouldn’t: it’s a small village, we’d have met up sooner or later.

Instead, I stumbled towards her, hardly believing my eyes. I paused a foot from her as her arm pitched forward and a coconut fell to the grass with a soft thud. Almost whispering, I said, “Jack? Is it you?”

She turned and gave me her old familiar, self-confident grin, pinning me with those mesmerising grey eyes of hers. I realised they matched her hair. A jewelled stud glinted on one side of her nose. If she was surprised at seeing me, she didn’t show it. “Hi Suze, I wondered if you were still around. God, you’ve hardly changed.” Of course I’ve bloody changed. Christ, it’s been 25 years, more than half our lives. She must have seen the irritation pass across my face. She lowered her eyes, and murmured, “Well, I still recognised you straight off, anyway.” Unintentionally, my gaze drifted down her body. She still had perky breasts. I felt my face flush at the unbidden thought. In the middle of the village green, among all the noise and hubbub of the fete, we stood in a small bubble of silence, our eyes meeting, both awkward, unable to think of a thing to say to each other all this time. Ernie Rossan, who was running the coconut shie, approached oblivious of the atmosphere between us, brandishing Jack’s coconut. She took it from him, her eyes not leaving my face. She shrugged her bony shoulders, self-consciously. “So, how are you?” Her voice was huskier than I remembered — sexier.

At that moment my daughter same running up, my beautiful 20-year old daughter, home from university for the summer. She grabbed me by the arm, laughing. “Mum, come on, they’re waiting for you to draw the tombola.”

Then she sensed there was something odd here and quietened, staring curiously at this strange woman standing so close to me. Giving myself a mental shake, I forced a smile. “Hannah, this is an old friend of mine, Jackie Frankham. It is still Frankham, isn’t it? Jack, this is my daughter Hannah. Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got this raffle thing to draw. Unless you want to come and watch?”

I felt my heart sink slightly as Jack brandished two pink cloakroom tickets, the ones we’d been selling for weeks for the tombola. “I’ve bought these, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Her fingers were tipped with long nails, painted midnight blue.

I made my way across the grass, feeling Jack’s eyes boring into my back. Hannah walked beside me, her arm still linked through mine, still stealing intrigued glances over her shoulder at our smiling pursuer. I entered the marquee and made my way through the throng, to mock cheers and a smattering of applause. When I climbed onto the small stage I searched for Jack. She hung back by the entrance, half hidden behind a big ruddy-faced farmer. Trying to concentrate on the task in hand, I manufactured a plastic smile and began to roll the big drum containing the tickets. “Okay, first out, yellow 62.” When I finished I looked for Jack again. There was no sign of her; she must have slipped out at some point during my ‘performance’.

That evening, Hannah pumped me for information about Jack: who she was, where she’d come from. Clearly she’d picked up that there was some story there. Trying to conceal my annoyance, I pretended to be concentrating on NCIS on TV and said, “I told you darling, she’s an old friend. We were at school together. She moved away years ago. I haven’t seen her since, and I don’t know a thing about her.”

Hannah persisted. “She looked pretty butch to me. Do you know her Dad?”

Roger looked up from his Guardian newspaper, taking his unlit pipe from his mouth. “No, I don’t think so. Must have left before my time. Point her out to me if she turns up at church tomorrow.”

Profoundly wishing I could shut them both up with just a hard stare, the way Mark Harmon does to his team, I sighed. “I doubt that. She’s not ataşehir escort really the churchgoing type.” I went to bed trying not to think about Jack. She didn’t figure in my dreams — at least, if she did I didn’t remember. But the next morning, sitting in the pew at St Mark’s, as Mrs Driver played the organ while the congregation slowly ambled in, I stared blankly at the list of hymn numbers hanging on the wall and allowed my mind to drift back a quarter of a century…

Millgate Crossing is one of those quaint Olde English villages which overseas tourists visit by the bus load to snap pictures, have refreshments in the pretty little tea rooms, maybe a ploughman’s lunch in the traditional village inn, then move on and leave us in peace until the next lot show up. Awarded a Royal Charter in 1392, voted the prettiest village in the country numerous times, featured in calendars, once the setting for a BBC historical drama series. We have picturesque streets of old thatched cottages, a large village green, a river with an old stone bridge and swans, a duck pond complete with Aylesbury ducks, a celebrated romantic poet buried in the churchyard, the whole works. God, it was a dull, stifling place for a young girl to grow up in the early 1980s. Especially the daughter of the local Church of England priest.

I was a good girl. Naturally. I wasn’t like the rather common children growing up on the new housing estate the council had imposed on the edge of the village 30 years earlier, 50 or so ugly, nondescript houses which those of us in the ‘old village’ tried to pretend didn’t exist. The original families there had been resettled from the slums of London, and nothing much had changed. My father referred to the residents as “working class oiks” and “reject scum”. I didn’t like my father very much. I was also genuinely quite intimidated by him. He was a big man in a flowing black cassock, long after that look had become unfashionable among Anglican clerics. He was an old style Christian, with a great belief in hellfire and damnation, and freely shared his views on who among the local populace and the wider world merited that fate. (Socialists, feminists, trade unionists, ‘queers’, the usual suspects.) My mother was a small woman, very quiet and rather grey. She tended to go unnoticed alongside my father. I always told myself that the first chance I got I would flee his influence and never have anything to do with the bloody Church of England and its nasty phobic views ever again.

I was never a great beauty. I had a pretty enough face, with good bone structure and rosy cheeks, and light brown hair which dangled halfway down my back. In terms of build, though, I took after father. I was ‘big boned’, as they say: I reached my current height, five-feet-ten, by the age of 16, I had wide shoulders, wide hips, long sturdy legs and size 11 feet. I was quite embarrassed by my feet, but then I read Britt Ekland’s were 11s too, which made me feel a bit better. I wasn’t fat — that’s what big boned is taken to mean these days — but I had big boobs and a large bum. Lord knows where Hannah gets her beauty and her divine, slim figure from.

I wasn’t the type of girl boys chatted up at discos and that kind of thing; them knowing who my father was couldn’t have helped. I didn’t come into contact with the opposite sex at school, either. I attended the fee paying girls’ grammar school in the local town. Every morning I would get on the bus and quietly sit in a front seat reading a novel — Jane Eyre, Rebecca, I had quite a taste for dramatic heroines in my youth. A couple of stops later, the kids from the estate would start getting on. They all went to the scummy comprehensive school. The noise on the bus would rapidly increase, with screams of laughter, swearing, satchels being thrown around, and I would tuck my head into my book and hope they didn’t notice me. Then, one day, one of them did.

I had just turned 18 at the time. I was happily ensconced in the world of D H Lawrence, part of my A Level English Lit studies, when I felt the bus bench seat I was sitting on sag slightly as someone flopped heavily down beside me. I looked up, surprised — and saw a pair of dove grey eyes staring at me. I had never seen such unusual eyes before. They were surrounded by a mop of spiky yellow hair, mischievously arched blonde eyebrows, high cheekbones in a thin face, with a long, pointed nose, a small mouth with thin lips, and a rounded, dimpled chin. The mouth was extended in a lopsided, rather cocky grin. She wore a school uniform, not dissimilar to mine; but whereas mine was freshly pressed and gleaming, hers was rumpled, grubby, and somewhat askew. I hadn’t seen her before; but then, I tried not to look at the estate brats, for all I knew she could have been getting the same bus as me every day for five years. She nodded at my book. “‘Ello mate, watcha readin’?” The accent was what I thought of as Cockney.

Irritated by the interruption, I replied, avcılar escort “It’s called a book”, and returned my gaze to it, hoping she’d take the hint. She was completely unfazed by my sarcasm. A moment later I gasped as my novel was whipped out of my hand. I was convinced I’d never see it again, that it would get tossed into the scrum of yobbos at the back of the bus. I felt tears springing to my eyes as I wheedled, “Please, it’s not mine, give it back.”

She looked up at me, apparently astonished at the panic I was displaying. Seemingly trying to reassure me, she said gently, “‘S all right, I’m just lookin’ at it — Susannah. You’ll get it back.” She’d seen my personalised bookmark. “Don’t you hate being lumbered with a poncey name? I’m Jack by the way — short for Jacqueline.” She pronounced it with an exaggerated French accent, rolling her eyes as she did so. She glanced at the cover of my book. “Sons and Lovers — any good is it?” I shrugged, unsure what to say, and feeling timid at this intrusion on my privacy. She started flicking through the book, reading passages.

After a minute or so, during which I sat in tense silence, staring straight ahead of me, a couple of the other estate girls crashed onto the seat behind us. They had wicked grins, and a nasty gleam in their eyes. I jumped as one of them ran her fingers through my long ponytail. “Watcha doin’ with this stuck-up cow Jack? Oi darlin’, d’you fancy a snog?” The newcomers cackled.

My new companion whirled round to face them as if she was sitting on a turntable. She stabbed a finger at them, and hissed, “You! Shut it!” The viciousness in her voice was unmistakeable, and had an immediate effect. The other girls didn’t move away, but they slumped back in their seat, one of them staring sulkily into her lap, the other suddenly developing a fascination with the passing scenery. I felt even more nervous now. The girl sitting next to me was petite — probably six inches shorter than I was, and skinny — but the others were clearly scared of her. What the heck was she?

As if nothing had happened, Jack handed the book back to me with another smile. “Yeah, it looks interesting, I might give it a try. I like reading. Books, I mean.” She gave me a cheesecake grin. “Have you heard of Jane Rule, Rita Mae Brown? No? How about Radclyffe Hall? You ought to read some of them, broaden your horizons.” She gave me a wink. “Anyway, cheers Susannah, this is our stop.” Giving her sullen friends a brooding look she rose and swung off the bus. I glanced back at her as the vehicle pulled off. She gave me a little wave, and I quickly turned back in my seat, feeling my face flush.

Despite my initial irritation at the intrusion, I was intrigued by Jack. She was odd, not like anyone I’d ever met before. Common, but so pushy, so self-confident — so unlike me. I scribbled down the names of the authors she’d mentioned. I checked the school library at lunchtime but couldn’t find anything by any of them. After school I went to the municipal library. I found a battered Rita Mae Brown paperback, the cover half-obscured by a clouded plastic sleeve. It was called Rubyfruit Jungle. I had no idea what the term meant, but the cover called it ‘a novel about being different — and loving it’. Well, I thought, we’re all different, in our own way. I sat down and started flicking through the book. When I realised what it was about, and read a couple of particular passages, I shot to my feet and hurriedly tucked it back onto the shelf. I actually glanced nervously over my shoulder, to see if anyone had noticed me looking at it.

On the bus home, my head was spinning. We didn’t have exotic things like lesbians in Millgate Crossing — the last ones were probably burned at the stake in the 16th Century. Yet, that was what this girl Jack was reading about. She called herself a boy’s name too. Did that mean she was, well, one of them? And she’d come and sat next to me on the bus, and chatted to me. Chatted me up? If she was attracted to other girls, did that mean she…that I…the bus doors sighed as they opened at the final stop, my stop. I rushed home and buried myself in homework, trying to think about the climatology of South East Asia, the post-war rise of West Germany as an economic force, anything but Jack, and what…those sort of women…might do to each other…

“Mum…mum!” I felt a sharp tug at my arm. Blearily I glanced up — to see Hannah pulling at me. She was standing — then I realised everybody in the church was standing, except me. From the pulpit, Roger was staring at me, a look of pained irritation on his face. I leapt to my feet and back into the present day, and launched into song with everybody else. “Oh God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come…” That afternoon, while Roger was sleeping off the Sunday roast and Hannah was visiting her friend Alison, I relaxed on a sun lounger in our conservatory. I had intended to read a magazine, but I felt too drowsy ataşehir escort bayan for that. Instead, I just let my mind wander where it wanted to. I hadn’t meant to think about any particular subject, but I suppose it was inevitable that one came springing back into my consciousness…

The morning after Jack introduced herself to me for the first time, I sat nervously on the bus, staring out of the window as it approached her stop. There she was, standing slightly apart from the other kids boisterously pushing each other and passing a cigarette between them. Jack was gazing intently at the bus, and I saw a smile break out on her face when she spotted me. This time she immediately came and sat next to me. The two girls she’s snapped at the previous day stalked past her, pointedly ignoring her. As the bus moved off, Jack said, “Mornin’ Suze, how are you? How’s Paul Morel getting on?”

Her reference to Sons and Lovers threw me for a second; so did her use of my name. Nobody, at home, at school, anywhere, called me anything but ‘Susannah’. It seemed strange to be called Suze. I said I was fine and, being the politely brought-up girl I was, asked in return how she was. She gabbled away for a few minutes. I didn’t really listen, I was still trying to work out where this strange, exotic creature had suddenly sprung from into my existence. I realised she was holding something out to me. “Here, you should read this if you like proper literature. It’s a truly beautiful book.” Dreading seeing Rubyfruit Jungle in her hand, my eyes dropped. It was a volume called The Well Of Loneliness. The cover featured an illustration of two women, I thought in Edwardian costume, one apparently passing the other a bouquet of flowers. The author was Radclyffe Hall. Then I noticed other words on the cover: ‘The classic story of Lesbian love’. I looked up at Jack — she was watching me intently, as if gauging my reaction. Feeling slightly faint, I thanked her and tucked it hurriedly into my bag.

I had no intention of reading the silly book. While my father’s poisonous homophobia sickened me, I could imagine what these women did together, I didn’t need to read about it. But that evening, in bed, I thought I’d better at least have a glance at it, out of politeness, in case in case my new self-imposed friend asked me about it. I finally switched my bedroom light off at about 2.30am, tears streaming down my face. It wasn’t a great work of literature; there were no embarrassing sex scenes in it at all; but the story was heartrending, and I ached with the pain of the central character. I don’t think I’d ever read a book that so moved me. When I went downstairs for breakfast the next morning my head still swirled with the characters and the twisting plot. I felt faint and distracted, and my mother actually asked if I was unwell and wanted a day off school.

I returned the book to Jack on the bus that morning. She gave me an odd look, and said, “Oh, don’t you even want to give it a try?” I assured her I had read the whole thing from cover to cover, and tried to convey the effect it had had on me. Jack was silent for a moment when I finished speaking. Then she placed her hand on mine — the first actual physical contact we had ever had — and said, in almost a whisper, “Yeah, it affects me like that every time I read it.”

After that, Jack and I sat together on the bus every day. She started hanging around in town after school so she could get the same bus home as me too. In all those weeks, we never once met anywhere but on the bus. I didn’t think of her as a friend, just a travelling companion. But as the days went by I began to learn about her life: the fact that she was three days older than me; how much she’d hated it when the family had moved from their home in South London to “nowheresville” a year or so earlier; her drug dealing pig of a skinhead brother; her slutty mother, who’d moved for a man, had quickly lost him, and who I thought worked as a prostitute, although I was never entirely clear on that point. It sounded like the family from hell, and I began to understand why Jack was a bit ‘different’. Like me she was in the sixth form, studying for A Levels, but unlike me she had no intention of going to university. “Nah, once I’ve done my exams I’m out of here. I wanna travel, see the world, live a real life.” She told me one day that she’d lost her virginity at the age of 14, to a truck driver of about 30 with whom she’d hitched a lift. She laughed at the memory, but I was too shocked to say anything. She glanced coyly at me and asked, “What about you? Have you ever done it?”

I blushed furiously. “Yes, of course”, I lied. She asked me for details, but I umm’d and ahh’d and said I was a bit embarrassed to discuss it. The truth was, the nearest I’d come had been more than a year earlier, after a Christmas party for the kids who made up the choir at St Mark’s. Fuelled by an illicit glass of sherry, I’d had a rather sloppy snog with a short, chubby boy a year younger than me, in a corridor of the church vestry, but lost my nerve when he slipped his hand up my skirt and started groping me outside my pants. God, I’d hardly ever even touched myself ‘down there’ at that time!

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