You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
It’s long before dawn and my fear of not getting back to sleep keeps me awake. I’ll look tired and old when I meet her. A man is describing how he survived a massacre by pretending to be dead while he lay in a grave among the bloody corpses of his friends and neighbours. I switch to a music station; they’re playing Mahler’s fifth. There should be a night-time station that reports only good news and plays Mozart arias.
We haven’t met in forty years. She sent an email through my website saying she would be in London for a few days and asking if I’d like to meet. I’d stared at the email for a long time, getting more and more angry. The breeziness of it incensed me. She’d signed it with her married name and put her maiden name in brackets. I’d assumed she was married because I hadn’t been able to find any trace of her on the internet.
I go downstairs to make a pot of tea. I sit in a leather chair in my kitchen-diner and look through the folding glass doors into the darkness of the garden. I was nineteen when we met and I’d come to London to study English and History. My flatmate was an art student called Vicki and we lived in Brixton where we shared a communal bathroom with two other flats. I’d just returned from a lecture one afternoon when I heard a knock on our door. The first thing I noticed were her kingfisher blue eyes; they seemed to look into me rather than at me. Her blonde hair was short and she wore a denim jacket over a dress with a pattern of blue anemones. She held out her hand and said: “I’m Anna. Vicki asked me to meet her here but I’m early. I hope you don’t mind.”
The warmth of her hand helped quell the turmoil she had stirred inside me. “No, come in.”
I led her into the living room. There was a rusting bicycle leaning against the sofa, the floor was covered in books, and dirty mugs and empty beer cans were scattered on all the surfaces.
She laughed and said: “My brother’s flat is less messy than this.”
“I haven’t had time to…”
“Don’t apologise. I love it.”
I moved the bike and placed it against a wall so she could sit.
“Thanks,” she said, and sat in the centre of the beer-stained beige sofa. “Vicki and I are working on a project together; that’s why she asked me to meet her here.”
I stood near the door in my grey track suit bottoms, black t-shirt, and bare feet.
“You’re at art school?” I asked, showing my brilliant powers of deduction.
“Yes, I’m a painter.”
I loved how she said it; it was who she was, not what she was studying or something she wanted to be.
She picked up a book that was lying near her feet and asked: “Is this yours?”
It was the Collected Poems of W.H. Auden. I nodded.
She recited all four verses of Lullaby without opening the book. By the time she’d finished the second verse, I was in love.
“Hi, sorry I’m late, bloody buses.” Vicki rushed into the room. “Thanks for letting Anna in, Jess.” She started taking books and papers out of her backpack and said: “We’d better get started, Anna, the deadline is Friday, isn’t it?” She turned to me and asked: “Do you mind if we work here for a few hours? We need space to spread things out and my bedroom is too small.”
“No problem,” I said. I was relieved to get away.
After three hours had passed, I was desperate to see her again. I’d spent the time lying on my bed replaying our meeting, going over and over every word, and examining every expression and gesture. l put my head around the living room door and asked: “Are you two going to eat this evening or has contemplating art helped you transcend such carnal needs?”
“We’re definitely up for having our carnal needs met, aren’t we, Vicki?”
“We’re up for anything.”
“I’m going out to get a pizza and I’ll get some for you if you tell me what you want.”
“Have you any pasta?” asked Anna.
Vicki and I looked at each other and shrugged.
“I’ll cook a pasta – I like cooking. I’ll see what’s in your fridge and we can go to the shops if there isn’t enough to make a meal.”
Vicki and I went out to buy pasta, the ingredients for a tomato sauce, and red wine, while Anna searched the kitchen for pans and cooking utensils.
It was the first home-cooked meal Vicki and I had eaten in the flat since we’d moved in three months earlier and we savoured every forkful. When we finished eating, we started talking about what constituted great art and we didn’t stop until we heard the men on the rubbish truck shouting to each other soon after dawn. We had decided by then that the concept of art should be abandoned.
I finish my tea and go upstairs to work in my study. I’m doing research for a documentary about being lesbian and gay in Uganda; the Government there is planning to introduce the death penalty for LGTB sex. I’m reading a report about the hate crimes committed against lesbians and gay men; they’re physically and sexually assaulted but they can’t get help from the police because they’d be imprisoned. It’s difficult to get a job, to rent a home, and to access health and education if you’re known to be lesbian or gay.
Anna starting spending more and more time with Vicki and me. We were drunk on the freedom of growing up, and trying to make sense of the world. We went to exhibitions, attended film festivals, analysed song lyrics, and read across all disciplines. We discussed every new idea we encountered. All we knew for certain was that we didn’t want our mothers’ lives.
“We have to accept that we’re disgracefully ignorant and of limited intellectual ability,” said Vicki. “It’s the only way our discussions will help us develop. Otherwise, we’ll be like the boys who are so busy trying to impress with how clever they are or how much they know, they don’t learn anything.”
Brian Wassa, an LGBT activist, was beaten to death in his home in Jinja. He was a paralegal who worked for an organisation that provides legal aid to vulnerable communities. Brian was beaten on the head with a short-handled hoe. He was twenty-eight years old, and he was very sociable and well-loved. Three other LGBT activists had been murdered in the preceding months.
We were talking about Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and drinking lager in our flat one night; we’d just been to see the film, when Vicki said: “I’ve terrible period pains so I need to take some painkillers and sleep.”
“Can we do anything to help? Make you a hot drink?” asked Anna.
“No, thanks; the painkillers will do the trick.”
“Don’t take too many,” Anna said.
“I stick to the instructions on the leaflet; my mother drilled that into us.”
“Good. Sleep well.”
Anna and I carried on discussing the film. We were both sitting on the sofa and I leaned across her to reach for the six-pack on the floor but I found myself kissing her before I reached the beer. She didn’t resist the kiss and she carried on talking afterwards, as if nothing had happened. I kissed her again a few minutes later and she kissed me back, a warm sensuous kiss, and she touched my face with her fingers.
“You’re not surprised?” I asked.
“Only by how long it’s taken you.”
I laughed, took her hand, and led her to my bedroom. We undressed each other slowly and tenderly, delighting in the exploration of each other’s bodies. There was none of the urgency and desperation of the sexual encounters I’d had with boys.
We were soon spending all our time together. Vicki had started going out with a guy she’d fancied for ages and she was spending most of her time at his place so we had the flat to ourselves. I’d fantasise about making love with Anna while I was sitting in lectures and I’d live the fantasy when I got home. When Anna had to work on her paintings in the college studio at night or week-ends, I’d go with her and study or write essays while she painted. She was working on a series of portraits of the migrant women who cleaned the college in the evenings. She worked from photos she’d taken of them and they took a great interest in the progress of their portraits. The portraits had a surreal quality because the women’s faces were painted in green, yellow and blue, and their features were slightly distorted. We sometimes made love in the studio when there was no one else around. We stopped seeing friends and we only left the flat to go to college. When Vicki came back to pick up some clothes one evening, she found us watching a television quiz together.
“You’re like my grandparents,” she said. “Don’t you ever go out in the evenings?”
“Out is over-rated,” I replied.
We spent Easter with our families and when we got back, it was as if a spell had been broken. We started to argue; ferocious rows that led to Anna walking the two miles back to her flat in the middle of the night, or me pacing the streets of Brixton and sitting in all-night cafés in tears. The sex we had when we made up became more and more passionate and intense. Anna often cried afterwards. And I felt desolate. We didn’t understand what was happening to us. We couldn’t talk about it. We were each alone, adrift on a wild sea.
“Vicki was right; we need to get out more,” I said, one evening. We’d had a row the previous night that frightened me; I’d felt a rage I wasn’t sure I could control.
“We could go to lesbian clubs and dance with each other,” I said.
“Why? Do you not consider yourself a lesbian?”
“I’m attracted to people, not their gender.”
“I’m being true to who I am.”
“The personal is political; we’ve always agreed on that. If straight women declared themselves lesbians and straight men said they were homosexual, it would get rid of prejudice and discrimination.”
“That’s a ridiculous suggestion.”
We argued late into the night and slept with our backs to each other when we eventually went to bed.
We started going to student bars and seeing our friends again. Guys would chat her up and I’d watch as she encouraged them. She treated me as if I was a casual acquaintance when we were out, and she expected me to make love to her when we got home. We were at a party with Vicki one night and the next day Vicki phoned me and said: “If a guy treated you the way she treats you, you wouldn’t tolerate it for half a second. Feminism applies to relationships between women too, you know.”
“You don’t understand,” I said.
“You don’t want to understand.”
I was desperate to return to the warm gentle waters of our first few months but I couldn’t find a way back. I knew Anna felt the same and we were bound to each other by grief for what we’d lost; it was more binding than love.
I woke alone one morning; Anna was staying at her flat because it was closer to her college and she had an early meeting with a tutor. I’d been woken by the sound of someone opening the door of the flat and I thought Anna must have forgotten something. I got out of bed and found Vicki in the kitchen, filling the kettle. When she saw me, she put down the kettle, and said: “We need to talk.”
“What’s wrong, has something happened to Anna?”
She took my arm and said: “Let’s sit in the living room.”
“Tell me now.” I had been tormented by the fear that Anna would die since we’d got together
“She hasn’t had an accident but she’s left. She’s dropped out of college and gone home to her parents. She won’t be coming back.” Vicki handed me a white envelope and said: “She asked me to give you this.”
I tore open the envelope in such a hurry I split the paper inside. I put the two parts of the page together and read: “I’m sorry.”
A terrible low groan came from deep within me.
“She asked me to look after you.” Vicki put her arms around me and held me for a very long time, while my body was wracked with sobs.
I’m meeting her at a French brasserie in Soho. It’s easy to spot her because she’s wearing a silk blouse with brightly coloured stripes, tight white jeans, and gold sandals. Her hair is a striking silver and has been skilfully cut. She looks like a tourist. The other customers are wearing muted colours; the brasserie is a meeting place for people who work in publishing and film. She smiles when she sees me and I am nineteen again, standing at the open door.
“We should order,” I say, when I sit down. “I can’t stay very long. Something’s come up.” I want the waitress to save me. I want to run. “What would you like?”
“A latte would be good.” Her face is as lovely as ever; there is no disappointment, no regret.
I call too loudly to the red-headed waitress who looks indignant when she comes over. I order the latte and a cortado. After the waitress leaves, Anna asks: “What’s a cortado; they haven’t reached Cornwall?”
“Equal parts steamed milk and espresso.”
“Sounds good.” She puts her hand on my arm and says: “It’s great to see you.”
I’m angry she has touched me.
“Why did you want to meet?” I avoid her eyes.
“I wanted to explain.”
I stare past her, at the coloured bottles of French liqueurs above the bar. “You didn’t want to be marginalised, to lose status. You didn’t have the courage to be different.” I looked directly at her and lean forward. “We were living in a country where we have never been illegal. Young women are coming out today in Uganda where they risk being beaten up and raped and the possibility of life in prison. And their Government is about to pass a law that will introduce the death penalty for lesbian and gay sex.”
She takes her hand from my arm and I long for her to touch me again. “That wasn’t why I left. It might have been why I treated you badly sometimes but I didn’t leave because you are a woman.”
There is a silence before I ask: “You fell out of love?”
She takes a pink packet of sweetener from the white sugar bowl and turns it over and over in her hands. “I didn’t stop loving you.”
I stare at her. “Why would you leave if you loved me?”
“I find it hard to talk about it; it was a very bad time for me.”
“You didn’t seem… unhappy, not all the time.”
She looks down at her hands, the hands that had given so much pleasure to my body, and drops the packet of sweetener. “I was pregnant.”
“I left because I was pregnant.”
“One of the nights I went back to my flat because we’d had a row. There was a party.”
“Who was it?” I saw the faces of the boys who used to chat her up.
“It doesn’t matter. I was nineteen and I was pregnant.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? We’d have coped. We could have brought it up.”
“We were children. We had no money, no home, and we fought all the time. We were too young for that kind of love; we didn’t know how to ride those waves.”
“I would have done anything for you. I would have been your friend if that was what you needed. I’d have got a job and supported you.”
“I couldn’t cope with being pregnant and with our relationship. I had barely left school.”
“So you went back to your parents.”
“No, I went to stay with an aunt. My parents thought I was still at art school. My aunt was an artist and had never married so she seemed like someone who wouldn’t judge, and she was great. She arranged for me to have an abortion.”
The waitress arrives with the coffees. She puts them on the dark wooden table with just enough force to spill coffee into the white saucers. She walks away looking satisfied.
“Why didn’t you come back after that?”
“I couldn’t go through with it.”
“You had the baby?”
“It didn’t survive.”
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”
“I was in a bad state for a long time. I went back to my parents but I never told them what had happened.”
Two young men sit at the table next to us. One of them has a baby in a sling hanging from his chest. I wait for the baby to start howling but it remains asleep, as if soothed by the men’s quiet voices.
Anna sees them and quickly looks away. “I’ve watched all your films. I was very proud of you. They’re brilliant.”
“We were going to collaborate, to create new art forms. We were going to do great things together.”
“I discovered that life can’t be painted over, or cut and pasted. I hit the brick wall of reality.”
“You got married.”
“I trained as a teacher and got a job teaching art in a comprehensive. And I married the maths teacher. He’s a good man.”
I feel a blade turn inside me. “Do you have children?”
“Two girls. One is a painter and the other a mathematician. The youngest, the painter, reminds me of you.”
“Why now? Why did you want to tell me this now, after all these years?”
She glanced down at her hands. “I was afraid I’d lost you, us, the memory of us. I can’t bear the thought of not remembering you.” She paused, looking up now. “And I wanted you to know I didn’t stop loving you. I didn’t tell you because I wanted you to be free, to love again. And to live the life we’d dreamed of.”
I stretch out my hand and entwine my fingers in hers. Our hands are soon soaked in tears.