Chapter 8

INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE

CHAPTER 8

‘THE FLAME’

I can’t remember when I first realised I was gay. There was no big revelation. Nobody changed my life. No-one forced anything on me or forced me to do anything I didn’t want to. It crept up on me, really, the unsensational truth nibbling away at my ear as I grew up. What was true is how natural it felt, it had always felt right. I was entirely happy to be who I was. Only others seemed to want to direct me another way.

I’ve known guys who have come Out later in life, creating turmoil within a previously, on the surface, happy family life, a home broken along with a wife’s heart and kids’ expectations. I’ve known young guys who never came to terms with being gay, fought it, hated it, wished it were not so, craved for a ‘normal’ life. Wrecked by grief and dismay at their situation before they‘ve had time to find anyone to love them for who they are. On the other hand, I’ve known guys who seemed to go out of their way to outrage, to shock, to prove to everyone they walk past that they are different, who enjoy being stared at just so they can pout back and blow a kiss.

I never was any of those. I was just me.

Even at school, where I was tagged ‘Queen Hilary’ by many of the boys, their name-calling never intimidated me. In fact, I would often use it to my benefit as I did one cold and rainy morning. I usually walked to school but, on this day, as the weather was awful, I boarded the old double-decker Routemaster for the ten minute ride. I would normally sit on the lower deck with the girls, much more fun and not as rowdy as upstairs where all the lads were, as usual making a racket and running all over the place. But that day the lower deck was packed so I had to join the boys. As I climbed the stairs I heard one of them say, “Hilary’s here!” and, when I reached the top, much to my thrill they all stood to attention. A boy at the front of the bus stood in the aisle and shouted, “Hail Queen Hilary!”, which everyone repeated. It was rather a marvellous noise. I smiled at them all, waved grandly and made my way to the front, flopping down in the seat vacated by the ringleader.

“Thank you!” I said to him, beaming gratefully. And to the rest of the bus, “You can sit down now!”

They did, leaving this one lad without a seat and looking most disconsolate that his prank had backfired. Everybody laughed, one of them shouted, “Good for you, Jonesey!” and the ‘Hailing’ one, instead of objecting or – as I thought he might – dragging me out of my seat, walked to the back amidst a busfull of jeering and went downstairs, where he had to stand on the open rear platform, getting blown to buggery by the wind and rain. As I got off the bus outside the school gates he mumbled at me,
“I’ll get you for that.”
“No you won’t,” said another boy.
Feeling really quite protected and special, I emerged from the bus with pride and body intact. Intact and smiling, in fact.

***

When I was five, first year at Infants’ School, I was allowed a sneak peek at Jane Malding’s underskirt in the playground. She was a year above me and locally famous for winning a Butlins talent contest singing ‘Last Train To San Fernando.’ She’d sing it for anyone who asked, throwing her head back as though catching the spotlight and concentrating very hard on getting all the words right. Curtsying at the end to the inevitable applause and admiration of boys from her class, she seemed set for stardom. I always found her voice a bit thin and screechy but never said so…

Fate made the right decision. She married the local mayor’s son, an ambitious lad who whisked Jane off to America where they set up a successful carpeting company called ‘Completely Floored’. They had four Harvard-educated kids and an apparently beautiful home in fashionable Westchester. I imagined Jane marching onto the stage at one of her Marquee-tented charity do’s, taking the mike and thrilling all her rich society friends with ‘Last Train To San Fernando’. I wondered if her voice had remained thin and screechy. I’m sure her friends didn’t really care.

…Anyway, I digress. Little Miss Malding, as she’d been billed at Butlins, had been threatening to show me her underskirt for weeks and finally, one afternoon, she took my hand, led me behind the headmistress’s Morris Minor and told me to “stand there.” She hitched up her frock and looked very pleased with herself. I thought she looked a bit daft but the underskirt did fascinate me. It was a voluminous multi-layered net rainbow-coloured thing. Like something from ‘Come Dancing’ without the sequins. I recall being more interested in the material than the naughtiness of what we were doing.

“Doesn’t it scratch?” I asked her.
“Have a feel and see,” she replied coquettishly.
I did, but more like a customer in a dress shop would rub a fabric to check it out for quality.
To Jane it felt naughty and she giggled when I rubbed the net. To me it just felt a bit scratchy. Bored, I wandered off to get a Jammy Dodger biscuit from the teacher who handed out Jammy Dodgers and Wagon Wheels at playtime. She was chatting to the janitor, laughing at his jokes. He was a handsome man whose smile thrilled me so much more than Jane Malding’s net underskirt.

***

When I was twelve, a school mate, Ronnie, held my hand as we watched TV in his house. He sort of ran his hand over mine and then held it, stroking it gently. As the TV mumbled away in the background and my eyes got increasingly blurred, he squeezed my hand and I squeezed his back, not sure what this meant but enjoying myself…

Ronnie was the school Romeo, good-looking and funny, girls of all ages fancied him, some of them regularly spending a happy half hour with him in one of the unfinished new-builds down the road. I’d sometimes see them coming out of the doorless doorway, tucking in their shirts and blouses, hair ruffled, lips a bit red. They’d giggle at each other and swap secret smiles as I waved at them from across the unmade road, trying to look as though I didn’t know what they’d been up to.

…Back on the sofa, my heart was thumping in my chest and made a noise in my ears, bang! bang! bang! I was sure Ronnie could hear it, especially as he edged closer. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn towards me. I could feel his warm breath on my neck and noticed how lovely he smelt. I was just about to turn my head to him when the sound of a key in the front door, much bustling in the hallway and a cry of “I’m home!” put paid to that.
Ronnie quickly thrust my hand away and jumped up.
“Hi mam! You’re back!” he shouted, running into the kitchen.
“Yes. Who else were you expecting?”
I followed him out and smiled at his mum busying away with her shopping.
“Hallo Howard!” she said. “What’ve you two been up to?”
“Nothing!” Ronnie said. “Just watching TV!”
“Has he been looking after you?” Ronnie’s mum asked, tapping her son on the shoulder playfully.
“Of course I have!” Ronnie said, laughing.
She looked at her son and shook her head,
“Little monkey. Always up to something you shouldn’t.”
Five more minutes, I thought, and who knows what he’d’ve been up to?
Sadly, I never found out. Ronnie didn’t hold my hand again. In fact, I was never invited to watch TV with him again. The moment had gone.

***

As long as I can remember, I enjoyed being with men, but never feeling I was like them. I just wanted to be near them. I loved the way they sat. I loved the way they talked. They’d rub my head and call me ‘cock’. I’d blush and want them to do it again. My dreams from a young age were always about men kissing me. Not passionately, more like Prince Charming kissed Cinderella in the Disney cartoon.

Even by my teens, my fantasies weren’t particularly sexual. It wasn’t sex I craved. It was a man sitting next to me, smiling at me and telling me I was his world. Sex was a mystery really. It was something other lads did with the girls in the park on a Friday night. On a Monday morning, before class started, I’d listen to their detail-laden stories of what they’d got up to in the bushes, trying to picture it and failing. I was more confused than turned on when one of the girls, Barbara, told me she’d sucked Colin’s lollypop.
“Would you like to come and polish my tits this Friday night, Howard?” she purred, seductively undoing her top blouse button.
One of the lads licked his lips and winked at me. It wasn’t an invitation but it stayed with me for the rest of the day, long after the thought of Barbara’s available boobs had gone completely out of my mind.

I’d snogged a couple of girls at friends’ parties, mainly because that’s what everyone else was doing. I think they’d enjoyed themselves but I never did. One snogee, Julie, a blonde-haired lovely all the other boys fancied, who’d chatted me up over an orange one afternoon, decided after a startlingly little amount of time that I was her boyfriend. This entailed visits at weekends, flowers in hand for my mother, long walks down country lanes and stolen kisses under blossom-filled trees. While this Mills & Boon idyll kept her happy for a few weeks, I watched, like a fascinated observer, as it all unravelled, a disaster waiting to happen.
“Maybe they were right,” she said, when the inevitable ‘are you finishing with me?’ moment took place in a bus stop in Rawtenstall on a wet Saturday night. “Maybe you are a pooftah.”

***

The first man who fell in love with me was George. He lived in Ramsbottom and resembled an Edwardian porn model, short and stocky, broad shoulders, droopy moustache and thick sideburns. He was a couple of years older than me and always brightened a room with his killer smile. I didn’t know he felt this way about me until one evening, when my parents were away for the weekend, I asked some friends from the village to come back to my house to listen to some music. We’d often get together at each other’s houses, a sort of house-crawl, ending up at whoever’s parents were out for the night. We’d put the world to rights, listen to great records and sing in front of the fire together. It was that time in one’s life when it felt like every tomorrow was made for you, only the future mattered, and we were going to be a part of making things different. George was usually there and always ready to sit and chat to me, which was in itself a pleasure. Eye candy wasn’t in it.

He’d asked me once, when everyone else was chatting amongst themselves, if I was gay and I’d replied I was but that I hadn’t done much about it. I remember him smiling even more broadly at me, nodding and drinking his beer thoughtfully.

On this particular evening as we all walked back to my house, George suddenly began picking all the daffodils which grew in the turfed areas along the pavement. He ran along the road and wherever daffodils grew he picked them until his arms were full of yellow. As we reached my house he ran in front of me and declared,
“These are for you, Howard!”
Knowing he was a bit pissed, I smiled and thanked him while his mates whooped and hollered.
“Georgie!” one of them shouted, “You getting amorous with Howard?”
“If that’s what he wants, then yes, I am!” he replied.

I took some of the daffs off him while he carried the rest into the kitchen, looking in cupboards for vases and arranging them on the work surface.
“Do you like them, Howard?” George asked me, looking extremely pleased with himself.
“They’re lovely,” I replied.
“They’re all for you, because you know, Howard, I love you!”

Believing this was one of those bromance moments when straight blokes get pissed and become extremely affectionate with each other – ‘I love you, I do, you know that?’ – I just smiled at George and patted his face. He kissed my hand and stood looking at me with swimming eyes, smiling from ear to ear.
Forever after wishing I hadn’t, I moved away and said,
“I’ll just put some music on, then I’ll be back.”
“You’d better be,” he replied and watched me go.
Leaving him in the kitchen putting more flowers in more vases, I went through to the sitting-room and looked through my L.P.s, picking T.Rex’s ‘Electric Warrior’.
“I love Marc Bolan!“ one of the girls shouted as I held up the sleeve for their approval.
“He’s gay!“ one of the blokes said.
“He’s married!” the girl replied.
“So what?” another bloke shouted and laughed.

As ‘Mambo Sun’ blasted out and people danced and sang along I went back into the kitchen. Five beautifully arranged vases of daffodils sat on the work surface but no sign of George, then I heard the soft sound of snoring from upstairs. I went up to my room, took off his shoes, covered him up and left him there, a moustachioed angel.

Nobody noticed he was missing as they sat around chatting or bopped to ‘Cosmic Dancer.’ When ‘Jeepster’ blasted out we all did Bolan impressions in a circle, joining in as one when Marc sang ‘And I’m gonna suck ya!’. Girls screeched, blokes winked back at them. Finally, when they’d all left I tiptoed upstairs, glanced in at the sleeping beauty, decided common sense should overcome temptation and crept into my parents’ bedroom. When I awoke the next morning George had gone, only five vases of daffodils remained of his declaration of love.

A few nights later, I was walking home with a couple of friends and saw George across the road. He’d obviously been drinking as he scampered over, shook my hand and put his arm round my shoulder.
“Howard?” he said, staring at me very intensely, arm still round my shoulder. “Can you give me some advice?”
“Sure.”
He looked around conspiratorially and then said, very quietly:
“The thing is, Howard, I love two people right now, and I don’t which one to pick. Should I follow my heart or my head?”
Stepping back as though waiting for words of wisdom, he folded his arms and quickly looked me up and down.
Trying not to blush and to keep my voice steady I replied,
“Do what you think is best for you, George. Whichever would work out best for you.”
George thought about it, nodded, shook my hand again, squeezing it very tightly and said,
“I knew you’d know what to do for the best. Thanks, Howard. Goodnight.”

As he wandered off one of my companions said,
“Was that Daffodil George?”
I laughed, “Yes, it was.”
“Was he speaking in code for our benefit?”
I shrugged and made a face as if to say “Dunno.”
“Don’t you want to find out?” my other companion said.
“What do you mean?”
“Go and ask him.”
I shrugged again.
“Go on! Go and talk to him properly about it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
I saw George disappear round a corner.
“Nah,” I said, “he knows where I am.”

Over the next few weeks I’d see him walking through the town with a pretty red-headed girl, kissing and canoodling her as they went along. One time, I caught his eye and he smiled and nodded across the street, then said something to the girl who smiled and nodded at me as well. I smiled back at them both. George gave me a thumbs-up sign, as though saying, ‘Right decision.’ I felt pleased and sad at the same time.

They were married a few months later and left the village to start up home together nearer her job in Manchester. I’ll never forget those daffodils. I never saw him again.

***

The first man I slept with was Big Nigel, a bass player in a friend’s band who I met one evening at a party in Edenfield, a couple of miles from my parents’ house in Ramsbottom. Chris, the host, told us his mum and dad were away so he’d decided to have a few mates round for beers and good music. Looking like Robert Plant’s twin brother he was a popular guy and the house was packed.

As Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something In The Air’ blasted out of the hi-fi I took myself upstairs to the loo. On the way back I noticed a tall hairy Adonis quietly crying to himself on the landing. I’ve always melted at the sight of a big man weeping and asked him what the matter was.
“Me girlfriend’s finished with me,” he said through tears falling down his bearded cheeks.
Dying to wipe them away I asked, “What’s her name?”
“Maureen,” he replied and began to sob again.
“Well, it’s Maureen’s loss, “ I said, which elicited a gorgeous smile and an adorable blush.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Howard,” I replied, suddenly aware that he was stroking my arm. Voice shaking, heart beating, legs trembling, I said, “Yours?”
“Nigel,” he replied and smiled again.

He continued to look at me and smile and stroke my arm. Then the film jumped and I was suddenly in his arms with his tongue down my throat. As if in a dreamlike gay ballet, he lifted me up into his huge arms, carried me across the landing, pushed open a bedroom door and lay me very gently on the bed. He was about twice my weight and at least six foot four. ‘Bloody hell,’ I thought, ‘you’re beautiful.’
Getting naked seemed to take seconds and very quickly hands and mouths were everywhere. We rolled around the bed, or more accurately he rolled me around the bed. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me and while not quite the Disney cartoon I’d imagined, it was near enough for now. After more groping and rolling, he lay me on my back and knelt up in front of me, putting my legs over his lovely wide shoulders.
“Yeah?” he asked, grinning at me.
I looked at him in what I hoped was a Lauren Bacall kind of way, but inside I screamed, ‘Oh yes!’
And then the door opened.

Pat, a rather odd girl I’d been talking to earlier, wandered into the room. She was apparently famous for labelling all her food in the kitchen cupboard ‘Property of Pat’, and making sure everything in there read out perfectly face on to whoever was looking in. She closed the door, stared at us, put her tiny little hands to her tiny little face and said in a tiny little girl’s voice,
“What are you doing, Howard?”
Thinking ‘Isn’t that bloody obvious, dear?’ I instead replied, “What are you doing in here, Pat?”
Nigel promptly leaned over the bed and with an enormous groan threw up all over the rather attractive and probably brand new beige rug.
Seeming to freeze on the spot, Pat opened her mouth more widely than I thought was humanly possible, clasped her hands to her ears and, looking like the model for the Edvard Munch painting, she screamed. And screamed. And screamed. Her huge shock of wiry black hair appeared to rise ever higher as her scream got ever louder. It added an extra touch of horror to the already ghastly scene.

The door opened again and this time several people ran in, witnessing a naked Adonis retching over the floor, a skinny naked me pleading with Pat to stop screaming, and Pat screaming so loudly one of the girls said, “Shall I call the police?”
Someone outside the door said, “They’re going to call the police!”
“No-one’s calling the police!” We all looked to the girl who said this. It was Chris’s girlfriend, Andrea. She was a tall Amazonian creature and stepped forward, hands on hips, waiting for silence. Even Pat shut up, her scream turning into a kind of muffled sob.
“Now, let’s all just calm down!” Andrea continued. She looked at me with a kind of disdain.
“You, get dressed!” she ordered.
Looking down at the vomit-covered rug she pointed at Nigel:
“You, clear that up!”
Then, putting her arm round Pat’s shoulder and stroking her hair with the other hand she led her out. Everyone else followed her and, finally, a sort of peace returned.

As I found my knickers and socks and sat on the edge of the bed, Nigel looked over at me and wiped his mouth:
“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “What a mess, eh?”
Not sure if he meant the pile of vomit on the rug or the situation, I smiled wanly back at him.
“Don’t worry,” he said, pointing at the vomit, “I will clear it up.”
“You’d better,” I replied, “or Andrea’ll have your guts for garters.”
Nigel pointed at the vomit, “D’you think?”
I treaded carefully round it and found my trousers and sweater, thankfully out of range of the spray. Sitting next to him, I patted his arm.
“Saved by the belle, eh?” he joked.
‘Even after throwing up he looks gorgeous,’ I thought, and was about to kiss him on the cheek when the retching restarted. I pulled on the rest of my clothes, and, knowing this wasn’t the time for fond goodbyes, walked out onto the landing.

A crowd of onlookers queuing up the stairs gawped at me, all trying to peer through the closing door at what was going on in the bedroom, as though a murder had taken place.
“Can I just squeeze through?” I asked, edging my way down the stairs. They parted like a Biblical sea and I made for the front door, slipped on the shoes I was carrying and stepped out into the warm evening air. As I breathed it in I heard Chris let out a wail upstairs:
“Oh No! Nigel! That was me mum’s favourite rug!”
I closed the door and walked home.

“You have a nice evening?” Mum asked as I let myself in.
“Interesting,” I said and, without elaborating, went up to my room. Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ seemed a good choice to blow away the confusion in my head, until ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ came on. It could have been written for me.

I saw Nigel a couple of weeks later at a local disco standing alone at the bar. I was just weighing up whether I should go over and speak to him when a group of his mates joined him, accompanied by a skinny dark-haired girl. She smiled at Nigel, stepped up to him and said something into his ear. He grabbed hold of her, gave her one of those tongue-down-the-throat kisses I remembered so fondly and his mates burst into applause. By the beam on Nigel’s face I knew this was Maureen who he’d been crying over at the top of the stairs. Luckily, some of my own friends came over and pulled me onto the dance floor. ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’ was playing and we sang along at the top of our voices:

“Christ! You know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me!”

I think I sang the loudest.

***

My first platonic girlfriend was Pauline. She was my best friend at school and the first girl with whom I never felt any pressure to ‘make a pass’ at or appear at all interested in sexually. We shared a love of music and the easy ability to make each other laugh, all the time.

We’d spend evenings joyfully miming to The White Album, Pauline playing Paul, and me, with my new round-rimmed glasses, John. Our favourite was ‘Helter Skelter’. Pauline had the mono L.P. and so one night I took along my stereo version. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Ringo cried at the end of the track, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!!”. It wasn’t on the mono version and she’d insist on me bringing my copy along after that.

It was through Pauline that I discovered Simon & Garfunkel were more than just one song. She had all their albums and would play, especially for me, ‘For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her’, my own S & G favourite. We’d both lift our heads and holler to the ceiling the last line of the song, ‘Oh how I love you!’.

She also introduced me to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Songs To A Seagull’ album, then a recent release. Pauline imagined ‘Michael From Mountains’ was about a boy she was having an on-off relationship with at the time. She’d dissect the lyric and say, “That is SO Michael!”

My love for The Beatles was matched only by her adoration of Dylan. She would proudly show me the front cover of ‘Freewheelin’’ and point out how much she resembled Suze Rotolo, the girl on Bobby’s arm on a freezing Winter New York street. While The Fab Four stayed top of my list, I did marvel at the delicious ghostliness of ‘Blonde On Blonde’, with its dreamlike druggy lyrics and Bobby’s wonderfully exhausted ’66 voice. I was especially impressed by ‘Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands’ which took up a whole Side Four of the album.

Our friendship went on into 1970, then, for reasons I can no longer remember – but am certain they were my all of my doing – we had a big falling out, rows on the phone, things said I certainly now regret. I was too proud to apologise and she was too angry to accept an apology, even if it had been offered. No longer seeing each other at school every day and living far enough apart to not bump into each other in the street, we lost touch.

Once, in the early ’70s, I saw her sitting in a folk club in Manchester where her now permanent boyfriend Michael was performing. Pauline looked over at me and smiled so, after his set, I joined them at their table. I’d not met him before and, not getting a particularly warm reaction as we were introduced, I said, rather gauchely,
“So you’re Michael From Mountains.”
It went down like a lead balloon and conversation became so stilted I excused myself and took my leave.

The very last time I saw Pauline was in Bury Town Centre. It was a few days before I was due to move to London, Summer 1973. I was waiting for my bus back to Ramsbottom from which, when it arrived, Pauline jumped off.
“Hi!” she said brightly.
“Hi!” I replied brightly back.
We did the usual “How are you?” and “How’s life?” thing, until I finally told her of my plans to move down South.
With very little reaction except a ‘thought you would’ expression, she just said,
“Well, enjoy your new life in London. I hope it goes well for you. Take care. ’Bye!”

This episode is covered partly in my 1974 song ‘The Flame,’ though its lyric also covers the wider theme of lost opportunities, friendships gone, chances missed, regretting what-ifs. Pauline is also the subject of a song I wrote just after our row in 1970, titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Pauline’s Song.’ I recorded a rough demo at home and performed it a few times in various folk clubs during the years before I moved to London. But, once down South, and with a pianoful of new songs under my arm, it was forgotten about. In 2009 I discovered the reel-to-reel demo in my trunk, liked what I heard and after a few lyric re-writes finally recorded it properly for my E.P. ‘Songs For A Lifetime’. The E.P. is in many ways dedicated to Pauline, featuring a cover of Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ and my interpretation of Joni’s ‘Michael From Mountains.’

***

Pauline’s Song

(Written and composed by John Howard)

When are you coming back to me?
When are you coming back to me?

You know, when I’m sitting here
In silence, save for the sound of rain
I know there’s nothing I could say
To undo the hurt and see you smile again

But as the days go by
I watch the dog lie unconcerned with life
I wish that I could worry less about you
(You’re on my mind all the time)

Shadows play upon the wall
They dance and writhe like fire
But still my nights are colder now
I never thought that I could feel this down

And as I watch the buses full of people
Going by my window
I wish that one would stop
And leave you standing there
Freewheelin’ with me again

When I wore your coat and you wore mine
Our spotlight shone as we both mimed
To records we’d just bought
The candlelight always caught our best sides
The room was small
Our dreams were vast
A trace of dust that floated past
“It fell down from the moon” you said
And like our dreams
I believed you
And now I wish that I could worry less about you

You know that there are songs
We listened to that kept us singing
I still play them on my own sometimes
And I can hear you harmonising

But as I lie around and watch the door
Opening and closing
I wish that I could see you
Walking down the path
Bringing it all back home again

When I wore your coat and you wore mine
Our spotlight shone as we both mimed
To records we’d just bought
The candlelight always caught our best sides
The room was small
Our dreams were vast
A trace of dust that floated past
“It fell down from the moon” you said
And like our dreams
I believed you
And now I wish that I could worry less about you
Now a candle only lights a corner

I know I said some things
I’ll never forgive myself for
You know those words can’t be unsaid
And we’ll never be like we were before
But time passes by
Passes by
Passes by
And we still have time
Still have time
Still have time
Don’t we?

I just can’t bear for it to end this way
And hey! this is no way to say goodbye

And I wish that I could worry less about you
Yes I wish that I could worry less about you
Oh I wish that I could worry less about you
Now a candle only lights a corner
When are you coming back to me?

Lyric: copyright John Howard 2009

This book, this chapter: copyright John Howard 2016