A short, true story: On finding an old photo of myself
When I was 18 and looked like this and sounded – as I still do – like the place I come from, and was taking a year to work in a holiday complex and earn enough money for university (the first in my whole family to go), I came to the attention of some well-off boys who worked there too. The first of their kind I’d encountered, being a comprehensive girl from the west country.
They liked me but didn’t like that they did, because I didn’t fit with their already-fixed ideas of what a girl should be (I understand this now; I didn’t then).
Their ringleader stopped me one day during busy kitchen service and asked what I wanted to do when I graduated. Everyone was listening. A lawyer, I suppose, I said. He looked me up and down. ‘There’s no way that will happen for you: You look wrong in your clothes and you sound wrong too.’
For shame, I let that go in, take hold, make me small.
(How did that happen, I wonder now, that it found me so tender, undefended? I think I’d been so well-loved by my single mother and the teachers in my small, rural town – all of them helping me to learn and go beyond them – that I was just too happy to see it coming. And this is how small shames silence us better than the larger injustices that have us shout in outrage).
So when a tutor at college disregarded everything I’d just said, marvelling instead at how quaint I sounded (‘Just like Hardy’s Tess!’), I didn’t stand up, demand an apology. And I didn’t take a TV job I was offered immediately I graduated, believing I looked wrong. I hid away in an office for twenty years, and happily enough, because I had access to a university library every lunchtime. I did my growing underground, under cover.
But then, past forty – mother of a bold young daughter – I’d had enough of hiding. And in the way of fairytales, my imagination and girlhood bravado were waiting outside in the sun for me to come back: they handed me a grandiose plan for how to take up space – Tom Sawyer’s fence made over for a woman who’d spent her life reading, writing. My Wild Patience: this mile of longhand done on my knees, in public, in my swimsuit, which has pool-goers share their stories as eagerly as Tom’s friends handed over the treasure from their trouser pockets.
I have so much to say, and I’m saying it, and in the voice of where I come from.