|My desert-island, all-time , top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:
1) Alison Ashworth
2) Penny Hardwick
3) Jackie Allen
4) Charlie Nicholson
5) Sarah Kendrew.
These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you'd sneak into the top ten, but there's no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you're just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueller than it is meant to, but the fact is that we're too old to make each other miserable, and that's a good thing, not a bad thing, so don't take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it's just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.
Alison Ashworth (1972)
Most nights we used to mess around in the park around the corner from my house. I lived in Hertfordshire, but I might just as well have lived in any suburb in England: it was that sort of suburb, and that sort of park - three minutes away from home, right across the road from a little row of shops (a VG supermarket, a newsagent, an off-licence). There was nothing around that could help you get your geographical bearings; if the shops were open (and they closed at five-thirty, and one o'clock on Thursdays, and all day Sunday), you could get into the newsagent's and look for a local newspaper, but even that might not give you much of a clue.
We were twelve or thirteen, and had recently discovered irony - or at least, what I later understood to be irony: we only allowed ourselves to play on the swings and the roundabout and the other kid's stuff rusting away in there if we could do it with a sort of self-conscious ironic detachment. This involved either an imitation of absent-mindedness (whistling, or chatting, or fiddling with a cigarette stub or a box of matches usually did the trick) or a flirtation with danger, so we jumped off the swings when they could go no higher, jumped on to the roundabout when it would go no faster, hung on to the end of the swingboat until it reached an almost vertical position. If you could somehow prove that these childish entertainments had the potential to dash your brains out, then playing on them became OK somehow.
We had no irony when it came to girls, though. There was just no time to develop it. One moment they weren't there, not in any form that interested us, anyway, and the next you couldn't miss them; they were everywhere, all over the place. One moment you wanted to clonk them on the head for being your sister, or someone else's sister, and the next you wanted to ... actually, we didn't know what we wanted the next, but it was something, something. Almost overnight, all these sisters (there was no other kind of girl, not yet) had become interesting, disturbing, even.
See, what did we have that was any different from what we'd had before? Squeaky voices, but a squeaky voice doesn't do much for you, really - it makes you preposterous, not desirable. And the sprouting pubic hairs were our secret, strictly between us and our Y-fronts, and it would be years before a member of the opposite sex could verify that they were where they should be. Girls, on the other hand, quite clearly had breasts, and, to accompany them, a new way of walking: arms folded over the chest, a posture which simultaneously disguised and drew attention to what had just happened. And then there was make-up and perfume, invariably cheap, and inexpertly, sometimes even comically, applied, but still a quite terrifying sign that things had progressed without us, beyond us, behind our backs.
I started going out with one of them...no, that's not right, because I had absolutely no input into the decision-making process. And I can't say that she started going out with me either: it's that phrase 'going out with' that's the problem, because it suggests some sort of parity and equality. What happened was that David Ashworth's sister Alison peeled off from the female pack that gathered every night by the bench and adopted me, tucked me under her arm and led me away from the swingboat.
I can't remember now how she did this. I don't think I was even aware of it at the time, because halfway through our first kiss, my first kiss, I can recall feeling utterly bewildered, totally unable to explain how Alison Ashworth and I had become so intimate. I wasn't even sure how I'd ended up on her side of the park, away from her brother and Mark Godfrey and the rest, nor how we had separated from the crowd, or why she tipped her face towards me so that I knew I was supposed to put my mouth on hers. The whole episode defies any rational explanation. But all these things happened, and they happened again, most of them, the following evening, and the evening after that.
What did I think I was doing? What did she think she was doing? When I want to kiss people in that way now, with mouths and tongues and all that, it's because I want other things too: sex, Friday nights at the cinema, company and conversation, fused networks of family and friends, Lemsips brought to me in bed when I am ill, a new pair of ears for my records and CDs, maybe a little boy called Jack and a little girl called Holly or Maisie, I haven't decided yet. But I didn't want any of those things from Alison Ashworth. Not children, because we were children, and not Friday nights at the pictures, because we went Saturday mornings, and not Lemsips, because my mum did that, not even sex, especially not sex, please God not sex, the filthiest and most terrifying invention of the early seventies.
So what was the significance of the snog? The truth is that there are no significance; we were just lost in the dark. One part imitation (people I had seen kissing by 1972: James Bond, Simon Templar, Napoleon Solo, Barbara Windsor and Sid James or maybe Jim Dale, Elsie Tanner, Omar Sharif ad Julie Christie, Elvis, and lots of black-and-white people my mum wanted to watch, although they never waggled their heads from side to side) to one part hormonal slavery to one part peer group pressure (Kevin Bannister and Elizabeth Barnes had been at it for a couple of weeks) to one part blind panic...there was no consciousness, no desire and no pleasure, beyond an unfamiliar and moderately pleasant warmth in the gut. We were little animals, which is not to imply that by the end of the week we were tearing our tank tops off; just that, metaphorically speaking, we had begun to sniff each other's bottoms, and we did not find the odour entirely repellant.
But listen, Laura. On the fourth night of our relationship I turned up in the park and Alison was sitting on the bench with her arm around Kevin Bannister, with Elizabeth Barnes nowhere in sight. Nobody - not Alison, or Kevin, or me, or the sexually uninitiated retards hanging off the end of the swingboat said anything at all. I stung, and I blushed, and I suddenly forgot how to walk without being aware of every single part of my body. What to do? Where to go? I didn't want to fight; I didn't want to sit there with the two of them; I didn't want to go home. So, concentrating very hard on the empty No. 6 packets that marked out the path between the girls and the boys, and not looking up or behind me or to either side, I headed back towards the massed ranks of the single males hanging off the swingboat. Halfway home, I made my only error or judgement: I stopped and looked at my watch, although for the life of me I don't know what I was attempting to convey, or who I was trying to kid. What sort of time, after all, could make a thirteen-year-old boy spin away from a girl and towards a playground, palms sweating, heat racing, trying desperately to cry? Certainly not four o'clock on a late September afternoon.
I scrounged a fag off Mark Godfrey and went and sat on my own on a roundabout.
'Scrubber,' spat Alison's brother David, and I smiled gratefully at him.
And that was that. Where had I gone wrong? First night: park, fag, snog. Second night: ditto. Third night: ditto. Fourth night: chucked. OK, OK. Maybe I should have seen the signs. Maybe I was asking for it. Round about that second ditto I should have spotted that we were in a rut, that I had allowed things to fester to the extent that she was on the lookout for someone else. But she could have tried to tell me! She could at least have given me another couple of days to put things right!
My relationship with Alison Ashworth had lasted six hours (the two-hour gap between school an Nationwide, times three), so I could hardly claim that I'd got used to having her around, that I didn't know what to do with myself. In fact, I can hardly recall anything about her at all, now. Long black hair? Maybe. Small? Smaller than me, certainly. Slanted, almost oriental eyes and a dark complexion? That could have been her, or it could have been someone else. Whatever. But if we were doing this list in grief order, I'd put her right up there at number two. It would be nice to think that as I've got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that evening in everything that has happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one. Of course, I have never had to take that long walk again, and my ears have not burned with quite the same fury, and I have never had to count the No. 6 packets in order to avoid mocking eyes and floods of tears...not really, not actually, not as such. It just feels that way, sometimes.