(from “Night Moves,” written by Bob Seger and performed by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band)
Breaking into a new community is hard as a teenager, and there were prolonged periods of loneliness after I moved down to Marlow. I joined the Air Training Corps, or ATC, on Wednesday evenings, and that became the beginning of social life there. I think that mum suggested it: the local regiment’s commanding officer lived a few houses up from us on South View Road. Scott Purser was another Borlasian who became my friend first through the ATC. We had RAF cadets’ uniforms and did parade ground drills. After a while we were allowed to shoot small barrel rifles at targets. There were even occasional gliding trips, when the cadets were allowed to ride in glider planes, although for some reason I never did glide.
But the high-spot for me of the ATC was Sandra Jones (not her real name). Sandra was a real life girl who walked past the ATC one Wednesday evening with a couple of her friends. Three cadets took up the gauntlet that they had thrown by making this provocative gesture, and started chatting with them. I make that sound easy, but it was dreadfully hard. Nothing was more important to us at that age than girls, and so we were very anxious on the rare occasions when we actually met them. For me at least, very anxious is an understatement. I was terrified. During the years since girls had been my buddies, they had become somehow alien and scarily powerful.
The girls had not sauntered past accidentally that evening, it turned out. One of the three, Lil, was madly in love with one of our cadets, and had convinced her friends Sandra and Liz to give her a little moral support. When I think about it, that may mean that they started talking with us, but my abject terror would not have been reduced by such an initiative. They remained girls, and Sandra was dark and smoky and shapely. I distinctly remember dying to retreat away from the group that first evening, almost beside myself with fear and embarrassment. Only Scott kept me there. He seemed relatively at ease, and I couldn’t bear the thought of copping out in front of him.
So I stayed put: I don’t really know how I managed to when every impulse was screaming “FLEE!”, but I did. We all ended up after the ATC meeting had ended walking up the High Street together. Which brought up the next level of terror. We had ascertained that we were all heading in pretty much the same direction that night. Sandra lived on my way back home, and Liz a little further on. Lil and Peter were already established, even if he was a little visibly ambivalent, which left Scott with Liz and me with Sandra. I could see the logic, although there was way too much adrenaline coursing through my veins to glean whether or not I actually liked Sandra. That assessment would have to be made later, when things were a little calmer. For right now, there was pairing off to plan for. I still just wanted nothing more than to FLEE, but as we reached the top of the High Street, crossed the road and turned right along Spittal Street, we were now paired off, at least walking in pairs. Ahead of Sandra and I, Scott put his arm around Liz, who obligingly reciprocated. That was it: any chance of avoiding the issue had now evaporated. I was going to have to put my arm around Sandra. FLEE! What if she was less obliging than Liz? And shouldn’t we hold hands first? And didn’t you have to say something romantic before holding hands or putting your arm around a girl? ABJECT TERROR! Oh my God! How am I ever going to do this? How am I ever going to live with myself if I don’t? Scott, slow down a bit, please! It took all my effort to keep talking about whatever we were talking about while at the same time trying to think ahead to come up with a way to transition into something affectionate. It was all so complicated!
I remember the exact moment when I finally found the courage to put my arm around her and pull her gently a little closer to me. It was in front of the luggage shop on Spittal Street, maybe two minutes after Scott had made his move but it had felt like two years. I gave up on finding a way to turn our conversation to something that would lead into increasing intimacy. Lest the moment be lost and I be forever seen as a failure by Scott, I just grabbed her around the shoulder in mid-sentence. She looked up and across at me, a little surprised by the absence of lead-in, but she was kind and after a moment’s hesitation, which needless to say lasted a little less than a year for me, put her arm around my waist. I gave a sigh of relief, and the conversation continued with lots of laughs and lots of pleasure feeling her body moving next to mine. We walked on by the churchyard and onto the footpath past the Church of England cemetery that was our way home, and now with the fear taking a back seat it was so much fun to chit-chat and sneak sidelong glances at her and smile into each other’s eyes. It seemed like a minute later that just the two of us (where had the others gone? how did that happen!) were standing on the footpath in front of her house.
There was very little light there, a streetlight around the corner, and I found myself holding her and looking into her eyes. Kissing her was a lot easier than putting my arm around her shoulder, perhaps because her eyes looked hunted and accepting, both at the same time. I don’t know how I knew that I could kiss her, even that she wanted me to, but I did. For once I figured something out! We kissed for five or ten minutes, holding each other so tight. I was thrilled and glowing and so excited. She even let me caress her
breasts, well, at least on the outside of her blouse. It was a cold evening, and this was my very first romantic kiss. I wasn’t going to blow it by being too hungry or pushy. As it was, stroking her full breasts through her blouse felt incredible. What a glow! It stayed with me for days. I floated home and to bed and felt on top of the world. I had a girlfriend!
Not for long, it turned out. She was still in love with a boy at Great Marlow, her school, who had apparently tired of her, or simply wanted to move on. I forget his name. If he was going to move on, then very pragmatically so was she. She had a classic kind of common sense, bordering on instinct. The boy would want to play the field because that is what boys do, even if the particular boy was lucky enough to have her. She did not really want to do the same, but if she had to she could find the advantages in doing so. She remained vulnerable to him, and we talked about him a few times, what had happened between them, what she felt, that sort of thing. I was trying to help her understand. Talking with her like that was easy because I was not really sure that I loved her. It was not clear in any event that I was capable of any love other than lust, but if I was then I wasn’t sure that Sandra was it. I don’t remember much about how the relationship evolved, but have a vague sense that she took the initiative in bringing it to a close.
But before she did, we had one real English date, one that she essentially directed. To be frank, English romance is pretty much an oxymoron at the best of times. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand why, to no avail. There is simply something unromantic in the English character, at least relative to the French and even to the Americans, the two other cultures where I have lived for extended periods. And romance for an English schoolboy at a single sex school is far from being romance at the best of times. When Sandra wanted to be kind to me before she dumped me, I never did find out whether or not it was to return to her not-quite-ex, she took me to the gravel pits. The phrase says it all. We lived in a picture postcard town on the River Thames surrounded by verdant countryside and beautiful views, as far as Windsor Castle on a clear day, and that evening she walked me to the gravel pits. If we had been in an industrial city, she might have walked me to the gasworks. The Pogues’ song 20 years later about snogging by the gasworks wall was not a satire, but a description of adolescence in an industrial city.
We were walking hand in hand, which I had learned how to do comfortably, at least with her, and chatting on our way down Gossmore Lane and past the recreation ground. I felt great, even if there was perhaps already a little of the melancholy that a pending break-up can bring. I felt really alive. She cut back away from the river on a footpath almost hidden under an overgrown avenue of trees. I had never noticed this path. The gravel pits were
acres of water left standing in several rectangular manmade lakes after industry had hauled away all the gravel that had lain in them. I wasn’t entirely sure why we were there, although acute anxiety was alternating with excesses of hope. Then she found a small grass clearing on the side of one of the pits, which she must have been familiar with from prior visits, and we both sat down. The prior visits did not bother me one bit, although I did deduce that they had occurred. The litter scattered around the little grass clearing, beer and coke bottles, that sort of thing, did not bother me one bit either.
This being England, or perhaps this being adolescence or even this being me, the romance left the evening as soon as the sex arrived. Sandra had figured out by this time how hopelessly inexperienced I was, which did not take much effort on her part. Not only was I genuinely unversed in the ways of the world, or at least of its female side, but I was also so acutely conscious of being so that nothing had the chance to ebb and flow and become what I was looking for. The dread bottled me up very effectively. I don’t know how much of this she saw, but she had apparently decided to be kind to me, to give me at least some of what boys want, before the inevitable break-up.
We started by snogging, that sleazy word with which the English degrade passionate kisses between teenagers. I never adjusted to teenage girls using the word. Laying by the pits, I kissed her and kissed her, and that part felt great. Then the compulsion to go further intervened. It was the ever-present possibility of more, of sex, that ruined this and other interludes that could have turned into romance. Even in the middle of that wonderful sharp and glowing sensation, more of that frantic boyhood terror arrived: now what? I focused on her breasts, delaying the inevitable even as it preoccupied me more and more and progressively interfered more and more with the course of the evening. She let me undo her bra, a heavyweight and functional piece of cotton with none of the lace or flattering mechanical tricks which later became all-but essential for bras. It was a task which I managed without undue discomfort, having spent some preparatory effort reconnoitering the snap. That was as close as I got to romance: making sure that I was prepared to do the necessary and, as the saying goes, keep my end up. Fortunately, on this occasion I did.
A young girl’s breasts must be the most beautiful things in the world to a young boy: Sandra’s certainly were for me, full and creamy white. For perhaps half an hour, between long and comfortable kisses, I stroked and kissed and tweaked to my heart’s delight. I would have been more than comfortable to stay where we were, and that is probably what should have happened, and perhaps I would have fallen in love. If it was all that easy,
teenage angst would rarely see the light of day.
I began to try to go further, despite having no clue where I would go or what I would do if I actually got there. I realize looking back that the urge to go on, which is less instinct and more the pressure imposed by the male role, is one of the problems about being a boy. Rather than staying where we were, in some sort of mutual juvenile bliss, the absence of any blocking action on her part led me to try going down, and I sent one of my hands exploring. The hand was not so much a part of me as an instrument under my control. I had already become detached from what was happening, from Sandra. Down, down, down went the hand, and it was all very tight down there. She had let me undo her skirt around the waist, but it still took forever. I couldn’t believe how far down I’d gone without finding what I was looking for. It was so tight and uncomfortable. What little I had learned about sexuality had not prepared me for this particular difficulty. Uneasiness flooded first through me, and then infected her. Although by a supreme effort and with an aggravated sense of discomfort I did finally get where I was going, the excitement had been almost extinguished by the difficulty of the journey, for her as much as for me.
She soon put an end to the evening’s amusements by announcing that it was getting cold and gently but firmly disengaging me and putting her bra back on and buttoning her blouse, which had remained underneath her the whole time. She certainly knew how to handle these episodes. I was impressed with her fluency, and grateful. The evening felt great in retrospect. End of story.
If anything, I was relieved, glad that my incapacity to have sex had not been revealed. That was my defining sexual undercurrent through these difficult years, a conviction that I was not yet physically ready for sex. I would spend a long time caught between my raging, rampant and rampaging desire, and believe me those words are well chosen, and a conviction first that I was not yet physically ready and later that I was not emotionally ready. It was an impossible conflict. My distress about developing late hid from me the possibility of having sex before becoming hairy all over. Only looking back do I realize that I was perfectly capable. At the time, I did not even consider the possibility.
When the possibility arose, as it had with Sandra on that one occasion, I panicked and fled in one way or another. I met another pretty girl a few months later, Alex, a redhead, also from Great Marlow School. I don’t remember much of our time together because it was overshadowed by one terrifying evening when somehow she ended up naked in my bed. Mum and dad must have been out: they sometimes let Sue and me host little parties in their absence, and this must have been one of those evenings. Otherwise no girl would be in my room alone with me. It was also the first time I had seen a grown woman naked. Well, okay, not fully grown, she was maybe 15 or 16, but the basics were all in their beautiful place.
I fled. Poor Alex must have thought that I did not like what she let me see, and nothing could be farther from the truth. She was fine and slim and beautiful and a natural redhead, a pale rarity. But when she let me get that far, all of her clothes on the floor and an implicit readiness to go “all the way,” the panic set in like wildfire. I invented responsibilities to other guests downstairs in the living room and our evening brusquely drew to a close. Sorry, Alex. It was definitely not your fault. I had no idea what to do, or that I probably could do it. I still remember how kind and sweet you were, and am still embarrassed by that evening.
And so it went on, my conviction of my own inability to perform compounding the natural male adolescent difficulty with sex. Until one evening Sandra stepped in, yet again. It was a total fluke. I was hanging out on Marlow High Street, perhaps with Geoff, perhaps Scott, I don’t remember who, but we were sitting on the bench in front of the Post Office at around 9 pm, late in this sleepy town, when Sandra scurried by on the other side of the street. I called after her, and she looked across at me with a scared expression on her face. I remember wondering why she was scared. She knew me, after all. I crossed the High Street, and we began to chat as I walked her down toward the river, catching up on news, remembering old times. We must have been broken up close to a year by then, perhaps longer. I never did find out where she was going that evening, and thought for a long time that she never arrived. But maybe she did. Maybe I was it, not necessarily her first choice, but an acceptable destination on a lonely evening. We found ourselves in Marlow Park, strolling arm in arm in the dark, first alongside the River Thames, watching the moon and stars reflected in its surprisingly still water, and then back into the Park, off the pathway this time, where we started snogging. It was back to old times!
It was such a surprise to find her, so friendly, so willing to be intimate with me again after all those months, that my inhibitions somehow went happily out the window. The snogging naturally evolved to rolling around on the grass in a dark corner of Higginson Park, her eyes hooded and doe-like in a way that it would take me years to understand and recognize, me kissing her, caressing her, lying on top of her, and then moving with her. That was new, and boy did I ever like it!!
Even though we were all but in the open in the middle of the park lawn, in our darkened cocoon we were almost invisible from the lighted pathways where the occasional strollers passed us by. People chatted from time to time as they walked by not 50 yards away on their way down to the river, cars drove by off the bridge, even closer, and I was all but oblivious. The movement went on, and was developing a life of its own. I don’t think that Sandra heard what was going on around us either. She was focused completely inside
herself, her eyes hooded, almost closed. The movement was taking control of me, I couldn’t stop it anymore, and then the hoods began to slip off her eyes and she started looking into mine, curious, questioning, “what are you doing?” The movement with its own life transcended the rhythm, transcended rock’n’roll, and to my great astonishment it happened, just like that, in the middle of that incredible dance in the park, my first ever. Sandra looked into my eyes with something approaching pride. Although it had never happened before, I did recognize it for what it was, as did she, and she was pleased with herself, if a little disconcerted. I was enthralled. My clothes were all still on, nothing unbuttoned, and her clothing was pretty much still in place, but what a moment that was in an adolescent boy’s life! Now it all made sense. That’s how it felt. Ecstasy and meaning, all together, all at once, an exquisite surprise in a park on the river in Marlow, the lonely little town on the edge of my world, after dark, uncalled for, right out of the blue, almost an accident.
It would be nice to say that this exquisite evening turned into a warm and loving relationship, and that my adult emotional life started that evening in Higginson Park. Unfortunately, neither would be the case. I walked Sandra home, glowing with her all the way, and don’t even remember whether we saw each other again. Perhaps we passed each other by in town, as we almost had done that evening, but I’m pretty sure that we did not go out again. Romance, this was not! The long path to an adult emotional life had barely begun. It took me years to realize how lucky I was to have gone out with Sandra, to have found for my first dates a girl so comfortable with herself and so emotionally pragmatic.
These two or three incidents were not my regular path to learning about love and sex, and were rather oases of something bright in a limpid pool of darkness and solitude. I was physically small and felt smaller, as skinny as a rake, ate poorly, and looked younger than my age. I lacked any self-confidence whatever with girls, whom I met rarely. If there is anything worse than being a late developer, it is being a late developer in an all-boys school. I was obsessed by my own physical inadequacy. I avoided T-shirts liked the plague, and constantly wore long-sleeved shirts and jackets, so that my upper body skinniness would be camouflaged. I did like to dress in the kind of interesting clothes that were available in swinging London, on the rare occasions when I could afford them. My favorite find was a great pair of royal blue crushed velvet pants on the King’s Road in Chelsea, which I loved to wear because they literally shone. But I became convinced that I looked less than adequate in these particular pants and took to hiding a handkerchief in my underwear to avoid appearing small. I even agreed to consult with the medical specialist that mum and dad proposed in an effort to help me get over this particular misery. They were kind enough to see that as a child’s excessive preoccupation, it was pretty self-destructive. The specialist was kind too. He opined that the next stage of humanity would certainly be more hairless, as body hair served few remaining evolutionary needs. But he helped me more by pointing out that the few pubic hairs that were beginning to sprout announced that I was developing normally, if slowly.
What helped more was the lesson taught by Sandra that evening in Higginson Park: I could do it. What “it” was remained unclear and in need of further exploration. Even if I was too insecure or stressed to find a girlfriend, I could do something like it by myself. “On n’est jamais aussi bien servi que par soi-même, » as the French say! A night time course in the basics of sexual pleasure duly began. It was a longer learning process than the concept of instinct would suggest. I was surprised to discover, for example, that some kind of mental stimulation was pretty much a requirement. What was an appropriate mental stimulus? If I had a girlfriend at the time, she was the best stimulus. But that was rare, nonexistent at the beginning. If the feelings for a girl were there, fantasies involving her would never bore, however simple they were and however much they were repeated. During the many periods that I did not have a girlfriend, there were always the good bits in popular novels, which all of a sudden became so interesting that when one clicked for me I read it again and again. Harold Robbins’ “The Carpetbaggers” had some really juicy passages, as did Grace Metalious’ “Peyton Place” and Alan Sillitoe’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” This was my first exposure to modern literature. At no time before or since have I felt impelled to read the same few pages of a novel over and over again so often!
During the daytime, I quickly became extremely sensitive to how a girl acted with me or around me, watching for clues that she saw me as I saw myself: skinny, or underdeveloped or whatever other negative self-image was topping my personal charts that week. Watchful of those around me since I had been a child, this rose to a whole new level with girls in my later teens. What boys were saying too achieved more import than in earlier years, but a girl’s every little gesture quickly became really dramatic and much more painful. If I smiled at a girl walking down the street, and she turned away, as she almost always did, of course, I would feel upset, and immediately start to rationalize. I wasn’t trying to pick her up, I would think to myself, I was just being friendly. So why couldn’t she be friendly to me? What’s wrong with me? Maybe she can’t see past the long hair and hippie clothes. But we’re all people underneath our respective veneers. Can’t she see that? Or maybe she’s just uptight, or unfriendly. Or maybe she’s not interested in someone who looks as young as me, or as skinny as me? This dialogue with my insecurities went on, and on, repeating itself with miserable regularity.
I had no idea how I ever got a date, or even found a girlfriend a couple of times for short periods. The cumulative effect of all the problems that I perceived in myself was that I couldn’t imagine that anyone worthy would care for me. It was the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to join any girls’ club that would have an immature and underdeveloped boy like me as a member. I assumed that only a girl who felt herself to have some kind of problem with her looks or personality, more likely both, would have any interest in me. So I would in my turn find some problem with her looks and allow it to become more important than it was, which helps explain why my occasional girlfriends at the time did not last.
Then there was the problem I had developed with conversation. I was always out there, talking: that had not changed since I used to make friends with adults on trains on my way train spotting. What had changed in a way that I could not pinpoint was how the conversation went. It no longer felt at ease, at least with young people my age, unless we were already friends, which ruled out girls right away. It worked with older people, still, but rarely with my own people. It went wrong in different ways. I became more and more analytic and argumentative. The two often go hand in hand. I would find fault with a relatively simple statement, just as I found fault with the girl who did not smile back to me in the street, and aggressively point out the fault, which most times was not a fault at all. I could come up with quick and clean arguments, even then, and was pretty much oblivious to the consequences of that approach. Or, should I say that I saw the consequences but attributed them to the other person. It was her fault for attacking me, or more likely for treating me disdainfully, or even more likely for not being interested.
I wanted all the girls to be interested, and, surprise, surprise, very few were! Because so few were, I was almost desperate that one of them be interested. The desperation probably looked pretty threatening, in one way or another, to each girl I interacted with: perhaps because she could see that my desire was essentially indiscriminate, seeking nothing more than reassurance, or troubled and edgy, colored by fear. Interpreting me in either way would have reduced any capacity she may have felt to be interested. Adding
to this communication nightmare was the additional significant detail that I probably didn’t notice her interest in any event. There was so much turmoil inside me that I was barely capable of perceiving anything but the disdain I expected in her. She, naturally enough, was trying not to show it if she was interested, and even if she had the courage to show it was not yet experienced enough to do so in a way that could penetrate the cloudy consciousness of an insecure boy.
This whole convoluted cycle became a vicious circle, one that lasted in one way or another for many years. My insides tied themselves up in knots, and what had been an intuitive gift at understanding people metamorphosed into an equal and opposite capacity to antagonize and misunderstand them. By the time I came of age, many of my youthful relationships with boys and girls had turned into a mutual wariness and easy recriminations. It drove me crazy. I didn’t want things to be that way, anything but: I wanted to get on with people, understand and empathize with them the way that I believed I had before, but could seem to do nothing to remedy the problem.
Actually, I do know how I managed to get dates, sort of. Alcohol, that’s how! The drinking age in the UK was 18, and we were easily served in pubs by about seventeen. We had no id cards to show, and were rarely asked our age. But I didn’t have enough money to drink a lot, even with tips and earnings from working part-time waiting tables, which limited regular consumption in a way that was probably good for me. But I figured out early that I could get over my insecurities if I was blind to them, and if I was blind drunk, then I was blind to them.
Phil Slow threw a great party in the summer of 1969. He was a Borlasian with an impish grin who lived in High Wycombe. I don’t exactly remember how I managed to get to his house that evening or, more importantly because I was pretty drunk by the time I left, how I returned home. Probably dad gave me a ride, at least a ride home. There were maybe 15 or 20 of us at the party, and Phil worked at the local market and derived privileges from that mysterious world in ways that were never clear. This particular night, he had somehow obtained a whole bunch of booze, including that rarity in our world, hard liquor. After the initial and normal discomfort on arriving, my mood improved with alacrity. I chatted and flirted easily with all and sundry, encouraged by the similar humor wafting around the other guests. Janice had longish blond hair and a big and easy smile, or at least that evening her smile came easily, and we spent much of the evening together. We chatted and laughed, and then we slobbered all over each other on the dance floor, and then we chatted and laughed again. As time went on, I began moving against her as much
as I dared during the dances. This was real meaty snogging. Isn’t that a wonderful English word: it beats “making out” hands down! The dance floor was the space between the sofa and armchairs in Phil’s parents’ living room, and we ended up rolling around on the floor together, half way behind one of the armchairs so that we weren’t interfering with anyone else’s dancing or snogging. This was serious stuff, at least for me, pure lust. It was also a warming intimacy: as a teenage boy, I almost didn’t have a means to cuddle except during a snog. An odd memory from that evening, of Janice grinning at me from a kind of distance, suggests that she was less rampant than I, almost detached, even as she rolled around and snogged with me for hours, but nevertheless I invited her to my house for the party already planned in a week or two.
Janice came to the party, thank goodness! It was the major party at home of my adolescence. Mum and dad let Sue and I throw a big party for a lot of guests, not just the usual few, on the condition that we were chaperoned by Peter Whitton, our oldest cousin, Margaret and Ron’s son. Peter accepted this unenviable task, mum and dad set off for a weekend visiting family and friends in Birmingham, and Sue and I let the word spread. It was a great party, a real humdinger. The house had been set up for parties by the Irish family who had built it for themselves, the Murrays, with a bar in the hallway and folding glass doors allowing the living room to expand into the hall and around the bar at will. The music was loud and everybody was dancing, or shouting, or fooling around. Couples snogged on the couches or leaning up against a quiet wall. For a while I worried about putting this ornament or that decoration out of harm’s way, and then I gave up. Peter tried to keep order, feeling it incumbent upon him to do so, and then he too pretty much gave up. Boys whom I barely knew raided the refrigerator and threw eggs down the stairs. That was probably the low point, or the high point depending upon your point of view. Mum was horrified when she heard about the eggs, and to be honest I was too. Why would people accept our hospitality and then smash eggs on our stairs? I didn’t see any of this at the time, being otherwise occupied in the spare bedroom with Janice. I don’t remember either how I got there or the preamble, but the main event, my first, was one of the most embarrassing moments of an intimate life chock-full with embarrassment.
The spare bedroom was perfect for what I had in mind, and I definitely had it in mind. Our romping and rolling around on the floor at Phil Slow’s party filled my fantasies the entire week before our party, a state of affairs that I certainly did not want to reveal when Janice appeared at the front door. I was relieved and grateful, which made it easy to be calm. We had a pleasant everyday conversation, circulated a little, maybe even an affectionate dance. I’m not sure about that, because dancing typically made me feel so self-conscious that I avoided it sober. But I was on exceptionally good behavior this evening. With a beer or two and the excitement returning, it wasn’t long before I was getting very worked up. That was the hard part about being with girls (no pun intended!), the way that my sexuality reared its demanding and terribly unsubtle head as soon as they were around, in almost any context. Here, at a party, with a girl who had already accepted more than a cuddle, the possibility of sex was blocking almost everything else. I manifested all the subtlety of a pig. Fortunately, Janice didn’t seem to mind, and just grinned as my vocabulary shrank and desire grew.
Once she accepted my invitation to go upstairs, we were quickly laying down in the dark behind closed doors on the old sofa in the spare bedroom. This was what partying was all about, in my hyperactive fantasy life, at least. She let me ease her down on to the sofa as we kissed, and before you know it I’m kissing and fondling her all over and moving onto her. She was moving around too, but more trying to get comfortable than responding in kind to my desire. She was giggling with embarrassment and a little discomfort, I suspected because of the unromantic nature of my approach. But what could I do? Normally a verbal and chatty boy, as soon as it came to girls and sex I clammed up. I knew that I didn’t love her, and felt that anything romantic I said in such a circumstance would be a lie, by inference if not in fact. So I said nothing, and concentrated on the task at hand, which did after all have certain advantages. I was beginning to feel almost comfortable.
The condom was key. This much I had learned despite the complete absence of sex education which characterized English schools at the time. Birth control made sense and was even required. No-one wanted an unplanned pregnancy. I had managed to acquire one at the local chemist’s shop with, it is fair to say, a little embarrassment. I felt that I was doing the right thing, even if I did look too young to use it and even if the salesgirl was indeed a girl and she did smirk at me. The purchase was made, my first, in the hope that Janice would make an appearance at the party. It was waiting in my pocket for the moment when we were alone together. As soon as I decently could in the spare bedroom, and my judgment was such that it was probably indecently soon, I took out the condom, unrolled it and tried to put it on. That’s right: first I unrolled it, and then I tried to slide it on! My shirt was still on, in disarray but on nonetheless, because I didn’t want to reveal my skinny white almost hairless naked body. So I couldn’t pull my pants down all the way either, or so I thought in order to maintain some kind of balance. At the same time, and in the same vein of balance or ethics or whatever it was, I didn’t try to completely undress Janice either. There was such a lot of thought going on in my busy little head, innocuously but still there in the background, even at the most exciting and rampant moments.
The clothes remaining, hers and mine, interfered with the task at hand. It was almost completely dark, and that infuriating condom was too tight to slide on. At least that’s how it seemed. It was bone dry: not knowing that there were different classifications of condom, I must have purchased one that was not lubricated. Janice was waiting quietly next to me. She must have known what I was doing. I was shaking with pent-up desire, and could barely function, let alone figure out how to put the damned thing on properly. I pulled it up a little way, enough to convince myself that it had gripped, and got on with what we were there for. Janice stared up at me, a little surprised, I thought, although she must have known where we were going. Finally, my first: what an exquisite sensation! What a beautiful warmth! What a lovely sight with me on the sofa, herself calming down and beginning to let herself go. Nothing like my level of excitement, I noticed, but something was happening. I was winding down from the initial rampaging, just beginning to think that this really was worth all the fuss, beginning to feel something wonderful and shared, when Scott Purser opened the door, switched on the light and apologized before closing the door again but LEAVING THE LIGHT ON!
That light was unbelievably bright. Whatever it was that Janice and I were going through, and I still don’t know how to describe it accurately, that light put a dazzling knife right through it. Blinking and cursing in an amiable manner, I started awkwardly with my pants around my knees to pick myself up from the sofa to turn the light off. Then out of the corner of my eye, unable to resist checking out what was happening down there, I discovered that the damned condom was split almost in two, and was not at all installed as intended. I cursed in a much less amiable manner, and looked back at Janice. That was it. The exquisite interlude, my first, was over almost before it had begun. Thanks, Scott! Not for a moment envisaging a need for more, I had conserved my limited funds and purchased just one condom. It was split almost in two. I wasn’t about to take wittingly any more risk of a pregnancy than I had already taken unwittingly.
I was way too conscientious for an adolescent! Janice and I picked ourselves up, organized our respective clothes, and returned casually to the noise downstairs, acting of course as if nothing had happened. Alcohol had helped me arrive where I had wanted to go, and indeed it had been worth it, even prematurely interrupted as it was. But I didn’t try hard to start dating Janice or establish a more complete relationship with her. She wasn’t the one. Probably no-one could have been at that time. I felt bad about not following up. Still do.
I barely noticed the problem as it happened with Janice, or upon one of the other rare occasions when I was running full steam ahead with a girl, but as time went on began to worry about what the girl in question was feeling, or rather not feeling. It became clearer and clearer that what I felt and what she felt about physical intimacy were very different. I began to perceive that the girl felt a lot less desire than I did. Or rather, my excitement and raging and rampaging began to wane in front of girls who were barely responding, and I began to ask myself why.
The most misleading message about girls at this point in history was conveyed by their miniskirts and the other fashions they wore which were encompassed by the rubric “swinging London.” Imagine the arrival of miniskirts at a time when legs and thighs were never seen in polite society. Girls’ clothing, like women’s, was becoming irrefutably sexy, and in my ignorance I immediately assumed that they felt something of the sexiness that they were flaunting. Not an unreasonable assumption, at first glance, but rarely accurate. A girl’s figure will excite boys without her necessarily feeling anything. A girl’s figure dressed provocatively or alluringly, with emphasis on her legs and curves, will excite boys more, again without her necessarily feeling anything. Fashion in the era of the Beatles and swinging London exaggerated the existing disparity between boys and girls, and the coming sexual revolution did little to improve matters.
Understanding very little of all this, and still at an all-boys school, I became very confused. Part of the time, I pursued girls and the things that young men pursue, in the way that I had followed Sandra into Higginson Park or Janice upstairs into the spare bedroom. But increasingly I worried about the disparity in desire. Worrying about that disparity took a lot of time in those days. I felt thick and blocked when I tried to figure out what it all meant. It occurred to me more and more often that if girls did not enjoy what I so craved, I didn’t want to inflict it on them.
I even remember saying so, in all sincerity, at least once. I had heard that two friends, Rose and Steve, had been having sex on the floor during a party one weekend. Steve was at Borlase’s and a friend of Adrian’s, with whom he shared long hair, and Rose, his on-again off-again girlfriend, was one of the few girls around who felt like my friend. Not long after that risqué story circulated, I was walking around Marlow with Rose, whom I had found attractive before hearing that story. After it, she looked better and better! She may have been Steve’s girlfriend at the time – it was never entirely clear – and so instead of letting myself feel the warmth and interest that she habitually provoked and that were enhanced by the rumors, I embarked on a typical rationalization. She was pretty with wild dark hair, and she was pretty friendly with me, and I was seventeen. So sex was in the air automatically and more so on that day. Unable to completely ignore it, I avoided approaching the subject the natural way, the way that I was inclined, by talking about it in one way or another. This had the advantage of being guaranteed to fail as a seduction technique, a discovery I only made later. Seduction was not its intent. It had no real intent. Talking about sex in one way or another was simply a way of expressing the constant anxiety, venting it and airing it to the point that it was again manageable. To stress to her that I was definitely not interested, I told Rose point blank that if girls did not want sex, then I wasn’t interested either. Things had to be even. How I got to that point in the conversation is no longer clear, but it was classic self-destructive behavior. That was my pattern. Most of the time when sex came up, as it does constantly when you’re a 17 year-old boy, the ensuing discomfort pushed me immediately into a monolog that inflicted my discomfort on anyone who had the misfortune to listen.
Of course, I did not raise the same issues with boys. Sex was not in the air with boys, and in any event boys would have found that sort of point of view distinctly odd. That much I could tell. Why they would find it so escaped me. Did they not notice what I noticed in the girls they dated? Were they more skilled or less ardent in their desire than I? Lobo gave voice to my own longing then a few years later when he sang, “baby, I’d love you to want me the way that I want you, the way that it should be,” (from “I’d Love you to Want me,” written by Kent LaVoie and performed by Lobo). What I was living certainly wasn’t the way that it should be. If there is one trick that the powers that be, whoever they are, have played on humankind, at least in its teenage embodiment, it is making sure that when it comes to girls’ and boys’ desire, never the twain shall meet. My reaction to that imbalance compounded its ensuing consequences.
Actually, it wasn’t entirely true that sex was never in the air with boys. Sometimes a man who gave me a ride hitch-hiking would start telling me stories about women in a blatant sexual manner, for example recounting a ride he had supposedly given a pretty girl not long ago, and “you wouldn’t believe what she did for me, sitting right where you are, at least until she got going . . .,” just what an adolescent boy craves to hear. It did not take me long to figure out that these men sought to excite me as a kind of seduction, hoping that I would get so worked up on what they were telling me that I wouldn’t notice that they were men and not women. That didn’t work, but I must confess to enjoying most of the stories!
One night a friend from Marlow and I were drunk and obliged to sleep in a barn the other side of Wycombe. I was maybe 16. It was very cold, and we had been at a party or in a lively pub or somewhere else that had the effect of heating us up. I was pretty worked up, and rolled over on top of my buddy, for the rather unsatisfactory reason that he was there. The first thing I noticed was that his whiskers pricked. I had a little fuzz on my face but had not yet shaved. He clearly had. The second, that his body was missing all the interesting parts. I rolled off pretty quickly, and we both carried on as if nothing had happened. It was a long, cold night, neither of us slept much, and we left as soon as the dawn broke and walked almost all the way back into Wycombe. A little experiment never did anyone any harm. We never even mentioned it again.
My distaste for the vulgar and coarse, first manifest in the dormitory at Solihull and continuing in these realizations and reflections, was still strong except for those moments, obviously happening more and more, when I too became vulgar and coarse. Scott and I skived off Borlase’s one day to see strippers in Soho. He sat with his legs wide apart, acting how he thought a man would act, but one of the women, all of whom seemed to be middle aged, still told us that we should be at school. She was right. It was a horrible spectacle: the ugliness of an older, naked and worn-out body on stage, however provocatively attired, looked nothing like the kind of excitement that we must have been looking for. Oddly enough, sex had nothing to do with the show. We left the bar and maintained some sort of swagger wandering around the West End of London, but the day was a depressing failure. I had no idea why I had gone or what I was looking for. In reality it was just like going to smoker’s corner: we went to see or be seen, and the smoking, like the naked middle-aged woman in that sordid club, was just the means to that end.
I still craved that exquisite sensation that Sandra and Janice had showed me, and spent countless hours rampant and rampaging and attempting to reproduce it all by myself and occasionally with girls. It felt almost schizoid. Attraction and repulsion waged a bizarre and potent battle inside me, way down inside. The basic goal was to keep my own desire under control so as not to cause distress in the girl of the moment. When I figured out that I was distressing girls, I didn’t want to continue doing so. But I didn’t want to live without those exquisite sensations either, or that wonderful intimacy. So I consistently skulked around in a social sense, hiding what I wanted, and trying not to want it. Then at the odd moments when those longings were finally released, unfiltered lust reared its ugly head and burst forth out of its restraint and from my day-to-day unease. Each time was a cloudburst. It was a pattern of emotion which would last for years, and not a happy pattern at that.
© Ian J. Stock
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