My First Lesbian
When I was a child, I thought as a child — and one thing I thought was that friends were a childhood thing, that you grew out of as you grew up. Certainly my parents didn’t go in for friendship much. I don’t remember my father having any social life at all, those years he lived with us. There were a couple of women from church who visited my mother sometimes, but I was always fairly confident they were really coming round to see us kids. Them apart, we were the original nuclear family, and I thought that was how all families were and ought to be: turned inward, properly focused on themselves, the children, the important child, me.
Except that once every month or so, we’d go out without my father — Dad never came with us, which even then I thought was significant of something — and walk up the hill to Gypsy Lane to visit Mum’s old friend from university. I used to love these trips. Gypsy Lane was a line of pre-war semis, big houses to us, and they overlooked a park, with a little wood at the end of the lane and always that private suspicion that it was called Gypsy Lane for a reason, that someone romantic and sinister and exotic was waiting just around the corner with adventure in their pocket.
What’s odd in retrospect is that what other people would certainly have found romantic and sinister and exotic just seemed perfectly normal to me. Down towards the far end of the lane, one of the houses had a ramp rather than steps leading up through the front garden to the door, and that was where my mum’s friend lived. She lived in a wheelchair, she lived with another woman, she wore men’s brown scratchy suits and ties, she had her hair cut just like mine and her name was Pete.
Actually I have no real memory of the woman she lived with. I’m sure we must have met, but only fleetingly; I don’t remember her name. My suspicion is that she and my mother didn’t get on, any more than Pete did with my dad. Looking back, I can feel all those undercurrents swirling around; but of course I was a kid and entirely self-centred, just skating over the dark deep stuff to get where it was light and bright and sunny.
Pete was a fascinating adventure for me, but not for any of the obvious reasons. It was always her mind that I wanted to explore, not her lifestyle. Her house was built of books, and her mental territory was vast; I never found a subject she wasn’t interested in, or a question that she wouldn’t tackle in all seriousness. She’d had polio as a child, and hence the wheelchair, but that didn’t stop her being a fine letterpress printer. In those days, pre-computers and desktop publishing, there was a network of hobby-printers across the country who produced small editions of handprinted booklets, pamphlets, individual poems; Pete was famous in that community, and not because of her disability. I still have some of her work, and it’s beautiful.
I also have a number of her books. She and her partner left town eventually, and couldn’t take that houseful of books with them; we were among the favoured few who were invited to take our pick of the remainder. I was older then, eleven or twelve, and I remember being more struck than ever by the range and reach of her mind — from astronomy to Greek, from English poetry to German philosophy to chemistry to birds. Given the same choice now, I’d hire a van and take all the books I was allowed; back then I was like a starveling at a palace banquet, almost scared to touch, entirely overcome by the excess of riches. I came nervously away with a dozen titles, and have pined ever since to go back for a second helping. Some of what I did take have been lost, the way books are, but there are still half a dozen titles in my collection with Pete’s own hand-printed bookplate on the flyleaf to remind me where they came from.
What still puzzles me, in retrospect, is just how much I took for granted. I suppose at some point there must have been a conversation with my mother about how Pete chose to use a man’s name and dress like a man, how she and her partner loved each other and lived together like a regular husband and wife though she was still a woman really; that must have happened, if only to stop me asking awkward or embarrassing questions of Pete herself, but I don’t remember it. It was just one of the facts of Pete’s life, like the wheelchair. I never questioned it.
Which means of course that I also never questioned the courage that it took to lead that life, being an entirely open lesbian in a wheelchair through the war and through the fifties, through the sixties in suburban Oxford which is where I met her, and onward since. Onward where, I don’t know. I had a couple of letters from her soon after I moved to Newcastle, but they were about printing matters and didn’t touch much on the personal; I don’t remember where they came from. Since then, nothing. If she was my mother’s contemporary — and I always had them tagged as college friends — then she’d be a hundred or so by now. I assume that she’s died, like my mother, but I’ve never tried to find out. I’m not cultivating a sense of mystery here, just seeking no resolution: like leaving an empty account open at the bank, just in case. I’m a grown-up myself now, and I can’t have too many friends.