My friend Celia’s house was on four floors. She and her partner Gerry had separate rooms on the top floor, and I was given a bedroom on the floor below. We met in the basement kitchen for meals. Celia’s grown up daughters had recently left home, and I was in loco infantis, a replacement child, even though I was in my late twenties, had a job, and a share in a house in Tunbridge Wells. I slotted in to this role quite easily, as I was completely lost. The marriage to Richard had not worked, but without him, and our shared life and home, I was at sea. My job as a research assistant at Brighton Poly was less structured than teaching, and much of the time I did not know what I was supposed to do. So there was little succour there.
Celia and I were in a women’s group, and I discovered that I was not alone in tiring of married sex. In that group I learnt to see the world in a new light, to understand that my shyness in middle-class male company was not just a personal weakness, but something to do with gender, class and power. We read Shulemith Firestone and Mary Daly and Dale Spender, and took evening classes in women’s history, women’s writing, and art for women. In the art class we met Andrea, who described herself as a radical lesbian separatist. Andrea seemed free of the guilt I felt about not doing my vague and nebulous research project properly. She saw her own boss as an agent of the patriarchy and colonialism, so she just took the money, and lived happily with her girlfriend in a tiny house in Kemptown. Andrea viewed us heteros as poor benighted creatures, and was amused by what she regarded as our pathetic attempts to make women more central in our lives. In one of the classes we were asked to bring positive images of women. Andrea commented wryly: ‘you’ve got the iconography, all you need is the practice’.
On Saturdays my main pastime was not one Andrea would have approved of. I walked into Brighton and went round the clothes shops. On one occasion I bought a complete new outfit in a shop in the Lanes – a bright cerise pink skirt with a camisole top in black with cerise straps and embroidery. The outfit was as different as possible to the tweed skirts and woolly jumpers I was still wearing, and had worn throughout my school teaching, married years, replacing the tweed with Laura Ashley cotton in summer. I also made a purchase of a black second-hand coat at Sussex University’s Tuesday market, on my way to ‘Feminist Forum’, where I listened to Jacqueline Rose and Cora Kaplan, awestruck, incapable of speech. The coat was a 1950s number, and it had a huge collar fastened by a large black button.
When I tried the cerise skirt and black camisole on in the evening for Celia and Gerry, still in my role of replacement daughter, Gerry commented that ‘the men would be flocking’. I had developed a crush on Celia, perhaps in part because of all that iconography, and I was more interested in her response to my new plumes. Celia was gorgeous – shining dark eyes and hair – and always elegantly dressed. She was the daughter of a diplomat, and had attended a French lycée, so like me she spoke fluent French, but unlike me she was culturally French, and knew how to dress, combine colours, and even make her own clothes. She was also good at interior design, and I marvelled at her pink and pale green salon on the ground floor, and the terracotta and turquoise study next to my room. Under Celia’s instruction I made a pair of earrings to go with my cerise and black number, and an appointment at a place in the North Lanes to get my ears pierced. The earrings lasted longer than the outfit, and I wore them as emblems of my Brighton transformation well into the 1990s.
Celia and I were close, and Gerry would leave notes for us in the basement kitchen, saying he could not cope with all this feminism in the house. He would retire to his room to work on his poetry or listen to funk music with his headphones on, while Celia and I enjoyed harmonious evenings together. In the morning I would hear the thud of Gerry bashing the typewriter keys as he completed another stanza of what seemed to be a very long poem. I found a box of completed pages in the bottom of my wardrobe, but could not make head nor tail of it. At lunchtime he would eat a solitary sandwich and then go out for a walk along the Undercliff path, whatever the weather.
In fact Gerry did not need to be jealous of me, because Celia was having an affair with a beautiful blond creature called Steve. She borrowed a friend’s cottage so that they could go there for sex in the afternoons, after which Steve returned to work to do the evening shift. In the mornings she would spend ages getting ready, and then would disappear out of the door in a flash of petticoats and perfume. Gerry eventually found out about Steve, and there was a terrible crisis, and a lot of door slamming. I admired Celia’s sangfroid. In the midst of the mayhem she planted spring bulbs in pots, in anticipation of the next season’s flowering. Perhaps this approach paid off. She and Gerry made it up, and became closer than before.
I began to look further afield for attention. Fortuitously I had met one of the lecturers at Sussex on one of my lunch-time flits over the road and he asked me out. It was a cold night, so I stuck to one of my tweed skirt, white blouse and woolly jumper outfits, but I did wear the black coat. He took me to the ‘Latin in the Lane’, and we ate a delicious Italian meal and drank a bottle of wine. Over dinner we recounted the stories of our failed marriages, and exchanged a few other salient details about our lives. He was the son of a Docker, and like me, the first in his family to go to University. Then we had more drinks at his local pub, and staggered back to his house for ‘coffee’. Fortunately his wife was with her lover that night. As he undressed me he said he was glad I had worn the coat as it made the rest of the outfit less conventional. In the middle of the night I took a taxi back to Celia’s place to get my diaphragm, which I inserted with trembling fingers.
The next morning he brought me tea in bed, and played Duran Duran – ‘Don’t say a prayer for me now, save it till the morning after’. In Kemptown Celia was also bringing me tea, and was very shocked to find my bed empty. When I eventually wafted home on a little pink cloud of new passion, Celia and Gerry were cross. I was not sure why. Gerry picked a quarrel about emptying the washing up machine. I went up to my room, oblivious. I was not enough of a teenager to sulk. That night I went to bed early, but was woken by the phone ringing. It was him. Celia tried to tell him I was in bed and could not answer, but I ran to the phone, and responded to his need to see me, right then, at that moment, dashing out of the house. The conundrum he presented me with was ‘should he finish with his girlfriend? Was I serious?’. Obviously he did not want to take the risk of losing both of us. It was the first I’d heard of a girlfriend. Despite Andrea, and Shulemith Firestone, and Dale Spender, and Feminist Forum I completely failed to see all the flaws in this proposition, all the danger signs. The iconography on his bedroom wall was another sign that I ignored. We read Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, and even then I did not take fright at his obvious identification with the ‘hero’. He and I moved into his wife’s boyfriend’s place for Christmas, while they took over the marital home. I wore my black coat, and my cerise skirt, got my ears pierced, and threw caution to the winds.
Still wearing the cerise and black earrings, Brighton, c. 1990….