The pub across the road from the dancehall wouldn’t usually serve anyone who dressed like me and Janet, so I took to carrying my passport in my handbag until they got to know us there. She and I would pop in for a drink when we got tired of dancing to ‘Liquidator’ and ‘Long Shot Kick De Bucket’ – the dancehall was unlicensed and there were a lot of schoolkids there on a Sunday night, which was why the pub landlord was a bit sniffy. She drank port-and-lemon even though I told her it was an old woman’s drink, after which she and I would leave.
The drink and the evening air would make her relax, swing her arms and swagger a little when she walked, and if she was in a good mood we would slip out of sight. There were so many places, from Ladywell to Eltham and back, where it was quiet and wasn’t overlooked, or where it was in shadow after dark. The one that seemed to pull us on Sunday nights was below the station, beside the gardener’s shed in a small park.
How did we get into this? Well, one evening we were waiting at the same bus stop. We knew each other to say hi to, and we were chatting. I don’t know why, but I decided to say that I’d like to kiss her.
“All right, go on then,” she said, and put her face up towards mine.
She was wearing a scent like oranges. I slipped a hand round her waist and pulled her a little closer to me. The kiss lasted maybe ten seconds before she pulled away and looked round to check whether anyone could have seen us. I recall we didn’t say much after that before her bus came. Mine arrived about five minutes later, by which time I was fancying myself in love and was missing her. Silly, but that’s how I was. I learned pretty quickly to be careful, to learn the rules she wanted to play by, the way her mind worked to convince herself that what we were doing was okay. Her mum had always told her that sex with a bloke was dirty. She’d never said anything about sex with a girl.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” she asked me, after our first visit to the shadows in the park, by the station. A train had just gone by, drowning in its rattle the cry she gave as she climaxed. We had pulled our hands out of each other’s panties by the time the sound of each had died away.
“I had a girlfriend before you,” I said.
Her reply was sharp. “I’m not your girlfriend. I’m not a lesbian.”
Once she told me, “I’ve wanted to pack you up a couple of times, but then I see you or I hear your voice on the phone, and I don’t want to pack you up any more.” She told me that like it was my fault, like I was doing something wrong to fix it that she wouldn’t finish with me. She had a lot of little get-outs that she used to fool herself with. Okay, so we kissed, so we put our hands up each other’s skirts, so she loved it when I first touched her tits and she always gave a little gasp when I unfastened her bra. But we didn’t sleep together, therefore we weren’t lesbians. We hadn’t seen each other naked, so we weren’t lesbians. We didn’t lick each other, so we weren’t lesbians. We didn’t say ‘I love you’, so we weren’t lesbians. It worked for her, even if she had to shift her ground when one of those actually happened, and say we only did it once, so we weren’t lesbians. We coded any talk of ‘love’, made it impersonal…
“It loves it.”
“It loves it too.”
One evening, there in the shadows by the gardener’s shed, my fingers’ insistence in her panties gave her a climax that made her cry out and pull away. For a few seconds we stood and looked at each other, our eyes being used to the dark. Then she slapped my face. She actually whacked me open-handed across my left cheek.
“I am NOT a lesbian!” she almost yelled.
We stood and looked at each other again, and then she flung herself into my arms, pushed her body hard against mine, put one arm tight round my waist and the other round my neck, and kissed me. She kissed me harder than she ever had, and yet there was something like surrender in her kiss. All at once she pulled away from me again.
“Got to get my bus!” she said, turned, and ran, leaving me there in the shadow, needing so much to bring myself to climax, weeping when eventually I did because it was my fingers, not hers, against my clitoris.
Sometimes, in the dancehall, where we had to pretend there was nothing between us, she would let a bloke dance with her, let him see her to her bus, and the next thing anyone knew was that they were going out together. That was what people said anyway. On Sundays like that, this bloke I know – Clive – would come over and ask me to dance.
“Is she giving you the runaround again?” he asked more than once.
“Apparently she’s not my girlfriend.” Clive knew about me, knew about me and her, and was just being decent so I wouldn’t look like a wallflower, so I could say things like this to him. “Apparently she’s not a lesbian.”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Not many blokes at the dancehall could quote Shakespeare. Clive was special.
“Explain that ‘rose’ thing to me,” I said later. Clive and I were in the pub. I was having a port-and-lemon, so that something would make my mouth taste of her. Clive was taking his first sip of a pint of light-and-bitter. He put his glass down.
“Everybody thinks it’s dead simple,” he said. “Everybody thinks it’s just Juliet saying Romeo’s surname doesn’t matter. It’s not that. Back in Shakespeare’s day what you called something was special. It wasn’t just a label. The word ‘rose’ was supposed to contain the nature of the flower itself. So when Juliet is saying that Romeo’s surname is not Romeo’s nature – that he’s not a Montague simply because he’s labeled one – she is saying something which would have startled the people who first saw the play. When she says ‘Romeo, doff thy name, and for that name which is no part of thee take all myself’ she is asking for the impossible, asking him to take on her nature when he takes her. It’s like she’s pleading to provide the married name – Capulet – call the shots, lead the marriage. She’s prepared to dump the cultural thinking of her time to have the boy she loves.”
“And how’s that got anything to do with Janet?”
“It’s the reverse. It’s the word ‘lesbian’ that has power for her. She likes going with you, but she’s afraid of the label, afraid it will change her. Or more like confirm something, strengthen something already in her nature.”
“Bleedin’ hell, Clive, you are so bloody brainy,” I said, grinning at him.
“Aw, get stuffed!” he grinned back. Then he was quiet for a bit, the grin left his face. “You really like her, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, “she’s cute, sexy, dresses nice, smells nice, kisses nice and… you know… plus she’s not stupid, she’s really intelligent.”
“Except when it comes to fooling herself.”
“Yeah, except that,” I admitted.
“She’s… mercurial,” he said. “I’ve seen the way she treats you. I watch her. I watch out for you. I see her being all sunshine or all clouds and leaving you confused, never knowing which she’s going to be.”
“You watch her,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I had realised that we had spent the past half hour in a corner of the pub talking about Janet. She had been the sole topic of conversation during our time together.
“Yes,” he sighed, “I watch her.”
“You really like her,” I said.
“Yes. A lot. More than you can know.”
“What a right bunch of morons we are,” I said, “all three of us. You and I come in here as an excuse to talk about her, because at this moment it’s the closest either of us can get to her.”
Clive didn’t say anything to that, but grabbed our glasses and took them to the bar to get a refill. We did change the subject after that, talked a little about how Clive was liking being at college – he was one of the few blokes from this neck of the woods who was at college. The conversation flagged after a while, which was a shame. Later, Janet being nowhere in sight and me missing her like crazy, Clive walked me to my bus. He got a kiss on the cheek for that – not something I would usually give to a bloke.
“I’ve got a bit of a thing for you as well, you know,” was his parting shot as I got onto the back step of that old, red London bus.
“I know… and you have no bleedin’ chance!” was mine. We grinned and waved to each other. Best friends.
© Morgana Somerville