In my memories she was almost always in the distance. The girl who broke the rules. The girl who wasn’t.
I suppose I was too frightened to get near, to close the gap. I was certainly too frightened to speak to her. Apart from anything else she was a senior girl and I was a first year. We might as well has been from different planets. Besides, she was beautiful. Something new in a world that seemed till then to have only two options – aggressively male, or aggressively female. People would often whisper that she was really a boy, not a girl. But I knew right away that she was neither. She was something new. She was a girl, but one who defined herself for herself. She was unique. She was true. She was the girl who wasn’t, and I was besotted.
Though I was scared of being too near her, I wasn’t frightened of her. I wasn’t even frightened by what I heard in the viciousness of those who talked (endlessly) about her. I remember mainly just feeling frightened that she might not see in me what I had seen in her. Would laugh and mock me for daring to think we might be the same. Daring to think that I too might be a girl who broke the rules. That I too might be a girl who wasn’t.
Because if she didn’t see me as I had now seen myself in her, then I would lose all hope of escape. When I discovered that she existed I started to believe there might be a way out. I began to dream that there might be enough of us to make a different kind of world. One made for us, instead of one that wanted us to change for it. I was so overwhelmed, so desperately happy to have found I wasn’t alone, I couldn’t take the chance of being told I was wrong.
I suppose I had always felt something about me was not quite what the world expected. In the looks of teachers and family and friends there was a judgement I understood to be a mix of pity, fear, and concern, just as I understood that whatever I was not, I couldn’t be.
I was much taller than most girls, and for a bit I thought maybe that was it. But then I started noticing all the things I liked that other girls did not. Matchbox cars. Action Man. Meccano. Taking things apart. Putting things back together. Climbing up things. Sliding down things. Airfix kits. The Eagle and Commando comics. Football. The even-for-back-then old fashioned ironmongery shop up the road with its smells and tools and old men in brown coats who seemed to know everything about fixing everything. And I noticed the things the other girls liked that I did not. I had no use for dolls, make-up, dresses, and pretty shoes with little heels. They all seemed instruments of torture designed to make me sit nicely, be quiet, be good. The things I was constantly told I should do and be. The things that made me feel like an animal in a cage.
All I wanted to do was go where I shouldn’t. Do what I shouldn’t. Climbing across roofs, running across the dam on the River Clyde, exploring still derelict buildings in New Lanark (long before it became a tourist attraction), riding bareback on the angry jet black pony that all the girls (and, I was pleased to know, most of the boys) were too scared to try. All I wanted was energy, danger, mess. I wanted life to feel so much bigger than it was. I wanted to be up, to be fast, to be brave, to be everything girls in small town 70’s Scotland were told they should not be.
I knew I didn’t fit, but in my primary school years I just assumed it was because I wasn’t in the right place. I made a couple of early breaks for freedom, and then resigned myself to be there until I could set off and find the place I was meant to be. It didn’t really occur to me it might not exist. That I might be the ‘problem’. And then I went to big school. To Lanark Grammar School.
Almost immediately it became clear to me I was never going to quite fit in, there or anywhere. It became clear that I was the problem. I was smart, but didn’t look like the other clever girls. I was sporty, but not in the way a girl should be. My boyish body and look drew the ire of the older girls who lined the school gates at the start and end of the school day or loomed in covens around the playground at break.
I immediately attracted the other outsiders. The ‘bad’ boy who decided to be my defender from the older girls trying so hard to taunt me out of my boyish appearance. The boy who didn’t like football. The girl who delighted to find another girl who actually liked reading, and who shared my excitement when a kindly teacher saw that I needed more than the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons.
I still remember the moment that kindly teacher showed me into the senior school section of the school library and told me take anything. Could I have known what I was picking? I doubt it. But it was with disbelief I devoured the Mary Renault book I had chosen. The book with subtle homosexual themes that I instantly understood, without really understanding.
In my misery I was beginning to agree with the world that I was the problem, when I became aware of her.
I wish I could clearly remember the first moment I saw her – the girl who wasn’t. But of course our memories are rarely obliging. I can just remember not long after starting big school being aware of a figure in the distance. Whispered insults as she passed, much more vicious than the low grade mockery aimed at the nearly six foot tall weird new girl.
I do though remember feeling my heart in my mouth when I saw her away from school for the first time. Saw her close up, not hidden amongst the crowd of other big kids. She was walking past the town library I spent most of my time in, furtively trying to gulp down ‘grown up’ books I knew I would not be allowed to borrow. I was coming down the steps of the library with a pile of what even then I was referring too disparagingly as “kid’s books” and there she was, passing by right in front of me. All of a sudden I just knew that she was the most amazing, beautiful, person I had ever seen. And that we were the same. I was 12, and suddenly my difference had a mirror.
From that moment she was all I could think of. I followed her whenever I could. Tried to get near her, but not too near. Craving and yet fearing her closeness. Someone told me she was musical and played the guitar really well. So I joined the music group thinking I might see her. It was too late in the term though and most of the instruments had been claimed. All that was left were a trombone and the bongos. So the bongos it was. I still think of her whenever I hear them. Or hear Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre…
Now Mull of Kintyre is not, admittedly, the first song that springs to mind when thinking of the bongos. But for some reason I had concluded that if she heard me playing it she might notice me. In retrospect she probably would have. Though not for the reasons my addled 12 year old brain believed. But I was in love and love and common sense, or taste, rarely go hand in hand. Though maybe love, like music, is simply our souls resonating off each other. Certainly what I felt was more than the endless crushes I would later have on other girls. It was a strange and exciting mix of obsession and recognition, of fearfulness and encouragment. Some deep sense of belonging that I hadn’t know until then.
While I can’t clearly remember the first time I saw her, I do clearly remember the last time I saw her. We were moving away and I couldn’t tell anyone that my heart was breaking because I would never see her again. Breaking because all I wanted was to be old enough to speak to her. To tell her my secret – kept close as I had seen what they had done to her, the girl brave enough to come out so young in those bleak 70s days.
By then I had been at Lanark Grammar for a year and a half. Long enough to have begun dreaming that one day ‘quite soon’ I would be brave enough to speak to her. Sometimes she would pass by the hotel my parents ran and I’d catch sight of her and rush out to follow her with my best Commando book spy moves. When I wasn’t doing that I would spend hours either on the roof or in my attic room reading Shakespeare’s love sonnets from the book I had asked for when I won a prize in primary school and which was finally coming in to its own.
I hadn’t seen her at school for several days and had been lurking morosely in my room, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of her before we left. More and more convinced I would not. Until suddenly, the day before we were due to leave, there she was. On the other side of the road. My idol, my obsession, my mirror. Turning up the street the library was on.
I ran down the stairs, out of the hotel, and flew unthinkingly across the road I had a few months before been knocked down on. I could think of nothing else but seeing her again. But the girl who wasn’t had disappeared. I ran into the library hoping she might be there only to be greeted by silence, by the absence of her, by men and women all looking exactly like men and women were supposed to. It made me want to scream. I was a caged animal again.
We left and I never knew what happened to her. I grew up and became a girl who wasn’t too. I found a family of other girls and boys who weren’t. We laughed and loved and made a place for ourselves just as I had always imagined. Made it so well the rest of the world started to change too. One day a friend told me excitedly about a band with a singer she was besotted with. A beautiful, androgynous, singer. Her name was Horse. I recognised her right away.