Moving On

I am asked to write down my addresses for the past five years. I stare seriously into nothingness as I mentally recount those places. I see my name above lines of addresses.

At 167 Broadway, I lived for a year in a freezing apartment. It was the bottom floor of a grand mansion. The rooms were ridiculous with high ceilings and endless rows of windows. It had a bathroom as well as an en suite. I moved in during a cold March, having viewed the flat on a bright Saturday in February. I don’t know how I afforded it. In the bedroom were a set of shelves which were hidden by the door. I had all my poetry books lined up running through the colour spectrum of the spines. White along the top shelf, bleeding into purples, greens, oranges, blues and then black. The kitchen was vast. The living room colossal. By that October I was never out of a jumper and always slept with extra blankets. I never felt like I could ever really get warm. I slept badly due to the cold and woke in the night to have herbal tea to keep myself warm.

At 123 Park Road, I lived for seven months. Sharing the house with others I barely knew. The house was old and slightly better heated than the previous place. The room I rented had a huge fireplace in the corner, which on occasion would produce the largest spiders I have ever seen in my life. I paid a flat rate of rent to the guy who was standing in for the landlord. I tried my best to be good and nice but he would always make me shudder. He was a strange and awkward presence, never really leaving the shared kitchen day and night. After a huge Hallowe’en party (a story for another time) I moved out. He decided to keep my deposit for spurious reasons and wrote several further letters demanding more money, threatening legal action if I didn’t pay up.

At 86 Burghley Road I lived for five Months (of a six month contract). Heat wasn’t an issue in the bedroom upstairs, but the electric heater emitted the most disgusting smell into the winter evenings. I spent my time up in that bedroom, avoiding the living room downstairs. It was cold and my ex moved himself down there after we broke up a month and a half after moving into the house. We had been together for two and a half years. If I really thought about it all, I could get dragged down into that time. I can’t quite believe it was only five months. I think when you are unhappy, really, seriously unhappy, each day feels longer. I spent every weekend at home with my parents. I’d come back to the house late on Sunday nights, usually to nobody, and cry. It is embarrassing, but I wailed like a hurt child. Leaving that house was leaving that life and it was sad and liberating and wonderful, but it still left a mark on me for a long time.

At 23 Highgate Close I have lived for two years. Balancing out the previous two years, rather expertly. Coming here was finding a new life. Things have not been perfect. I have been sharing with people who have annoyed me and I’m sure I have annoyed them. Things have been hard and frustrating and the winters have (once again) been cold. But this time I’ve had my knitted blankets to keep me warm and I’ve had the company of a lovely man who has kept me happier than I ever thought I could be. I have managed to find a life that I feel happy with, a life I feel happy with and happy to work at making better. When you are happy, the days, months and years seem to go quicker. This is my experience. I’ve been happy and lucky ever since I came here. Now I am ready to leave.

And now a most glorious thing has happened. I am currently awaiting confirmation of my next address.

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THERAPY: THE END OF THE YELLOW FOLDER (PART THREE)

Part 1 and Part 2

My first German class was in a cramped attic classroom right at the top of my new school. The rooms had been the living quarters of the teachers about twenty years ago. My new school was large and centred around a beautiful old mansion. The sixthform block was across three floors of the mansion. It was a girl’s school that allowed boys into the sixthform. Of course I stood out. But I was an outsider for a different reason and as such people treated me with respect and got to know me, instead of relying on the rumours that had followed me there. People asked me, whether I had really turned up to a non-uniform day in a dress or whether it was true that I came out by making a big announcement to a packed class room in front of everybody, shouting about my sexuality and then trying to kiss the boy sitting next to me. Surprisingly none of the rumours were true.

I ended up being good friends with lots of different people there. I already had close friends at that school, people I had known since childhood and they were my support system. I also ended up striking up friendships with people who were not friends (and in some cases, enemies) of those core friends I already had. Any school is full of rivalry, bullying and old feuds. I was naively plunged into the middle of that, but because I was a total outsider I was not allied to anybody. This was a fantastic new feeling, I could come to school each day and just learn. Nobody said a single homophobic thing to me the entire time I was at the school. All of the teachers were incredibly supportive and understanding. More than anything people were curious about me, and delighted that we could talk about boys we fancied together.

I still lived with those after-affects of the years of ostracism. I was still recovering from the depression I had worn heavily for a number of years. But what made the time incredible was the company I had and the sudden rush of new ideas and learning I had. I studied Philosophy for the first time, in the break before starting school I had read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and had ordered a lot of books about philosophy from the library. All of a sudden I had these new concepts which helped to explain the world to me, the idea of the Platonic forms, Aristotle’s concepts, Jungian Archetypes, Freud’s theories on the unconscious. Everything suddenly became wider and broader. We studied metaphysical poetry in English, the plays of Oscar Wilde, and E.M. Forster’s Howards End. 

During this time I read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and imagined the grand mansion house and the attic featured in the novel was the school house. I strode around the corridors of the mansion with a new confidence, I was in this incredible beautiful old building alone between lessons or on free periods. I had never before felt like I belonged at a school. The teachers I had were passionate. Especially those in the English department, who supported me and understood, before I did, just how important literature was in my life and how it could shape my life. I remember one parents evening my English teacher pointing out to my mother that I was one of the only pupils in the class who got the small, wry jokes in Austen’s Emma. I have loved Austen ever since. Virginia Woolf was another writer who I discovered at that time. There were cupboards and cupboards of old school texts which were being thrown out. We found a skip in the carpark full of the old battered books, so naturally some of us climbed in and picked up what we could. I got the complete works of Shakespeare, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Austen’s Persausion and Mansfield Park, complete with front covers made from old wallpaper with bookplates with names and dates going back to the mid-sixties, and a battered penguin edition of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. I read this in my spare time, Woolf’s prose made utter sense to me and was shaded with a beautiful philosophical nihilistic wonder. When I look back on those days I remember those sunny, long, free afternoons reading. Walking around the grounds with new friends.  We took poetry classes or German grammar classes outside under the trees.

I still found things hard, being gay was still a bit of a secret that I had to keep up. It was still something I felt I had to keep relatively quiet about around my family. But my fellow pupils at school were so incredibly accepting. I really started living in those two years at that school. I got back some self confidence and became better at expressing myself. I even enjoyed making people laugh in class and I acted in the school play and as several comical roles in the Sixthform Revue (something I never thought I’d have the confidence to do).  I wrote constantly, keeping an online journal of all my thoughts. I still carried that legacy of depression and knocked self-confidence all the way through to University and perhaps I still carry it with me today  in moments of nervousness and anxiety.

Ultimately the yellow folder, what was inside it, the endless pages of German vocabulary I’d copied out or the heavily annotated photocopied pages from key scenes of Shakespeare, what was on the outside of it: words carved heavily into it as if it were tree bark. The folder got me through. I carried it with me against my chest, tightly, a yellow shield that managed to deflect almost everything that was thrown at me.

Therapy: The Boy With The Yellow Folder (Part TWO)

Every morning on the bus ride in to school as more and more kids got on through the other villages and the town, the taunting grew and grew. Someone would almost always say something. They’d laugh about my hair, try and steal my bag, throw things at my head. It was a school bus, no-one cared. I’d get off the bus as soon as possible and walk the rest of the way into school. By the time I got to the underpass my heart started to beat faster. Crossing the road and walking up the side path I’d see the school buildings and feel my heart pounding heavier. But I had my white shirt on and my navy blazer with the school badge on the breast pocket and I had my backpack on and wore it with one strap, across my heart. And of course I had my yellow folder the last thing that protected my heavy-beating heart from everything outside.

I was good at school. I often wonder how much better I could have been if I hadn’t been bullied. If I’d had more time and mental space to work instead of being pulled down into depression.There was a dark dread I lived through anticipating that place. The fog that descends on Sunday nights before another week. For me this was a feeling I had each school night. I was also coming to terms with who I was at a time when being gay was still very under represented in the media and incredibly taboo in day to day life. I don’t ever recall meeting a gay person when I was growing up until I slowly realised I was one myself. I don’t really know how, but I managed to piece together who I was. I read lots of Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster in my spare time. They both wrote with the exquisite joy but also the silent agony about being gay. It was something that could be beautiful, it could be the most glorious thing, but it was always to be a secret. This was the best I had to work with at the time.

When we were studying Carol Ann Duffy in English, our teacher said “You’re reading the poem wrong. It’s a love poem. You can’t all just assume that everybody in the world is straight.” there was a powerful silence in the room and I felt all the eyes in the back of my head and I thought, other people are gay too, you idiots, listen to the teacher. That was one of those rare moments where being gay was addressed at school. During my time at school a piece of government legislation called section 28   was in force. This meant there was a strict control over what was said about gay people (and the gay “lifestyle” whatever that is) in schools.  I don’t know how far this went in terms of teacher guidance and I don’t know whether this was why teachers never really intervened in what happened to me. I certainly never had help from my form tutor or any of the many teachers who overheard the taunting in the corridors.  I remember only one teacher asking me if I was okay, my chemistry teacher who was young and very nice. Chemistry was never a strong subject for me but she asked me once if I was okay, because she “was worried about me.” She never said why. I was so depressed and felt so hopeless I just shrugged it off. I was numb and the best I could do was remain silent.

After our GCSE German exam, everybody from my class streamed out of school back to town. As I walked behind the crowd I kept finding abandoned German Dictionaries on the paths and road to town. I picked them up as I went along and kept them for myself. All these different German dictionaries for free, different editions and sizes. I came home with my school bag stuffed with them. Alongside English, German was my strongest subject. I loved speaking it and I had a natural talent for it. When I looked at my options for A Levels, only one other boy wanted to study it so I was told by my teachers it would be not offered.  One option available was to leave the school and go to another school in the nearby town, which was a language college. They offered German and had a great English department too. This school was an all girl’s school but accepted boys in the sixth form.

After I had decided to do this, I was cornered by the headmaster who asked me why I was leaving. I told him this other school offered German and I was sick of being bullied at the school. He was shocked, acting as if it was the first he had heard about it. I told him how long it had been going on for and how depressed coming to school had made me. How homophobic the other boys were. I felt brave using that word. I was essentially coming out to him but knowing I finally had an escape route, I had a little more confidence in myself. He told me to go to his office if it ever happened again. I laughed and told him it happened every day and there was nothing I could do about it. He seemed angry that I hadn’t told him before. As if it was a normal thing to go to the headmaster’s office and effectively come out. Before then I didn’t have the confidence to speak out about it. I was crushed by it. The constant name calling and threats made me feel useless. How could anything really change? Leaving the school entirely was the only solution.

I was so depressed, I found it hard to be happy about leaving, but I was. I wouldn’t have to wear the uniform again or to walk through busy corridors being shoved and screamed at. The worst of it all was by the end all the boys had to scream at me was my own name in a mocking tone. They didn’t even need to scream horrible homophobic words any longer, just being me, just my name and reputation was a bad, dirty, disgusting enough thing.  

The last time I walked away from the school my heart was pounding. It was one of those moments I knew I would remember. I would never have to walk up that hill towards that building ever again.

Therapy: The Boy With The Yellow Folder (Part ONE)

When I was at school I carried around a yellow lever-arch folder. I preferred to carry it rather than jam it awkwardly into my school bag. That rectangle of yellow against the navy blue of my uniform became a shield against everything.

When the school first found out I had a crush on another boy, I was in the music department over lunch time, eating lunch in a piano practice room. A music teacher came in and said there were lots of boys looking for me. He had kept them outside. However one boy had snuck in lying that he had wanted to borrow a book. That boy was particularly vicious. He must have looked in to all of the different practise rooms seeking me out. When he found me he came in saying “Why have you told everyone you’re in love with Will? You are sick and disgusting.”

I ran out of the room, down the corridor and out of the music building. I was greeted by a crowd outside waiting for me. That’s when the shouting started.  Everything and anything homophobic you could imagine was thrown at me for the remaining few  years of my education there. This was when I was in year 9, so I was 13 or 14. I knew I was gay and I had a crush on a boy. I confided in a friend who was also coming to terms with his sexuality. He then allowed the rumour to get out. It spread within seconds. This was an all boys school. The other boys united against me, I was a good enemy. I was an abomination. I made all of them normal by comparison.

I clasped at the yellow folder. I held it tightly against my chest with both arms to guard myself against the attacks in the corridors. It wasn’t just the boys of my age group. It was older boys, even some sixthformers. New boys who had just started from Primary school were soon inducted in the ways of screaming homophobic slurs at me. Every time I walked through the corridors between lessons, at the beginning of school, at the end of school, walking to and from school, sitting on the bus on the way to and from school. It was a constant deluge. Boys threw things at me, punched me, spat at me, and pushed me down flights of stairs. They pushed me into the mud, pushed me into bushes, pushed me into oncoming traffic. Boys planted “joke” love letters in my blazer pockets, they threw their lunches at me. It was practically mediaeval. I was the outcast they threw their rotten tomatoes at.

It took a lot of pressure to really dig a biro into that yellow folder, for the folder’s surface to admit the ink and make letters. I wore the letters in over and over as a stress reliever. I collected lots of quotes all over that folder. A cacophony of words, often snippets of poetry that helped me. On the side that faced the world it just said “STOP”.

Therapy: Barely an Ex

Growing up gay in rural Hertfordshire was an experience full of longing and misery. Before the internet brought people together it was difficult to meet other gay people, let alone people you could end up dating.

Everyone has a small private list of people they nearly dated, someone who never made it past that first flush of excitement, someone you would never even call an Ex. This secret list becomes all the more interesting for gay men who had short affairs with fellow Sixthformers or friends of friends, boys who ended up dating (and a lot of the time, marrying) women, possibly never again acknowledging their little dalliance with someone of the same sex.

One boy I think about a lot from Sixthform, was a gorgeous, tall, red-headed posh boy. A friend of a friend from South London. After I heard whisperings of his possible bisexuality, we met at a party and we ended up having a very brief affair. None of his friends were allowed to know. We had a handful of very secret meetings which I optimistically called “dates”. It went wrong very quickly. I remember him telling me on MSN (those were the days!) how it was not going to work out and that he was going to try to get back with his ex-girlfriend. The news crushed me.

This ghostly relationship haunted me for years afterwards. It was the fleeting nature of it’s existence and his insistence on keeping it secret that made it stronger and more painful when it was over. I wonder if I have become a little quirk in his past, the answer to a trivia question, “have you ever kissed a boy…?” I wonder if he would ever admit to it. It’s an incredible thing to think that someone could erase you like that. The power latent in past relationships is you are co-authors. You can argue over who said what, who did what, neither of you will be right. When you break up your versions no longer match as they once did. After years and years, you probably remember the same relationship incredibly differently.

Everyone has secrets about their past. Especially the strange things one got up to in their teenage years. It’s interesting to think about this strange cast of rogues everyone has in their past, relationships which never even blossomed, in my case, relationships which the other person has probably kept a secret ever since.