My contract at the Poly was coming to an end. History Man muttered darkly about the possible impact of my pending unemployment on our relationship, by now well on the rocks. He had sold the marital home, and bought his own place. I had foolishly moved in, and was paying him rent. Generally he was torn between the pleasures of regular sex and rent, and wanting his freedom. He did not always come home at night. I suffered agonies of insecurity and jealousy, and read up on open relationships. My women’s group was not convinced they were a good idea, and neither was I. On our kitchen wall I pinned a Spare Rib cartoon of a woman with furrowed brow and dark rings under her eyes boasting about the joys of her open relationship.
Tweed skirts and open relationships definitely did not go together, and the Laura Ashley had to go too. It was necessary to be sexy at all times, so I got peroxide highlights in my hair, and bought a black mini skirt, a red and white striped blouse and bright red tights to wear under my black coat. The red and white blouse was a comfort as it reminded me of my old school uniform, and soon after this, when I got a new teaching job, that’s exactly what this outfit became.
I was not the only lodger in the house – beautiful Steve had moved in. Steve and I talked about forming a lodgers’ union, but we both knew that our landlord only had to flick his fingers and I would come running. One night History Man brought a woman called Fiona home. They had coffee in the front room, while I cowered in my room, willing myself to disbelieve what was happening downstairs. In the middle of the night he came back to bed with me, reeking of her perfume. In the morning she crept out, and sped off on her motor bike. An outraged Steve told me my lover’s clothes were folded neatly on a chair downstairs – there could be no doubt that he had fucked Fiona in the front room.
I listened to Mahler, ‘The Pretenders’ and Joan Armatrading at full volume, and wrote him a letter to say I was moving out. I found it hard to maintain this position, even after Fiona. But in the end I did go, to a small house in Kemptown where every room was painted blue; I shared it with a girl who worked at American Express. We didn’t have much in common and our evenings in the blue sitting-room were exercises in failed communication. In desperation, one afternoon I brought Steve back to my moody blue lair. We translated our complicity as exploited lodgers into sex, albeit not very passionate sex, as Steve was falling in love with a librarian he had just met. Then one night I had dinner with Andrea and her girlfriend. They told me I had fallen into the patriarchal trap, big time, and that I still had a lot to learn. I did not disagree.
The next struggle was to find a job, in the midst of all this emotional mayhem. Eventually I got a teaching post in a sixth form college, despite the Head of Department having to ring three numbers before he reached me, and commenting later that there was a different male voice each time. On the strength of the job I got a mortgage on a house. Then it was my turn to get a lodger. Maggie moved in with several pieces of woodworm-infested furniture, jars of home-made pesto and bottles of Sicilian wine. I was not too keen on the woodworm, being a pattern-maker’s daughter, so we put her furniture in the back yard – where it promptly fell apart and then lay in a sad heap for months. On her first night we ate spaghetti with the delicious pesto and drank a bottle of Corvo. Things seemed to be looking up.
My independence made me attractive to History Man again, and we resumed our affair. But the job did give me a new security and new friends. I got the 8.12 train every morning, having donned my red and black school uniform, embellished by a pair of red, heart-shaped earrings. I had bought them in Camden market on a day trip to London whose highlight – beside the earring shopping – was a visit to the Sisterwrite bookshop on Upper Street. One day as I was tidying the room at the end of classes, I found that one of my pupils had carved the words ‘the return of the red legs’ into the desk. I consoled myself with the thought that at least they were paying some kind of attention, and scurried off to get the train back to my Brighton life.