People often ask me, “When did you first know you were gay?”
The temptation is to reply with, “When did you first know you were straight?”
But I try to resist.
I always fancied guys and girls too. I thought everyone did.
The first time I realised you couldn’t talk about it was when I was about 8 years old and Adam from the chip shop, and part of my gang ‘The Car Park Kids’ (terrifying, I know), asked me who I fancied.
I replied, “Jenny.”
Jenny was his sister.
Anyway, he thought my response was hysterical. He laughed like a crazy person, pointing at me and then told all the other Car Park Kids, including Jenny, what I’d said.
Shit, I’d thought.
Jenny looked horrified.
I lied and said I’d never said it. Disaster diverted, at least for about a decade anyway.
The first time I met Charlotte, I was 19 years old and she was 22. I had just arrived on bustling Oxford Street for the first day of my Saturday job at Selfridges. I remember seeing a tall and striking blonde dressed in a sharp, fitted black suit, standing at the back of the shop-floor.
She looked mean and sexy at the same time.
Charlotte worked full-time and had an air of authority about her, a power and presence, all this whilst actually saying nothing at all. She was a statuesque Dane, emanating confidence. I think everyone was a little scared of her. She was intimidating because she was clever and bored, two traits I’ve never seen be a great combination in a person. Everything seemed obvious to Charlotte and she had little patience for us part-timers and newbies. She always seemed one step ahead of the rest of us with what the customer might want, or what was low in stock. She was good at her job and made it look effortless. I wasn’t sure whether her boredom would cause her to bully me or not, but I wasn’t about to find out. I decided I had to make sure that she liked me and wanted to be my friend. If I could break through the surface, I thought we might get on.
There was another girl that started the job at around the same time as me. I forget her name now, Ana I think it was. She was a petite thing, even shorter than me. Charlotte used to give her the job of cleaning on top of the clothing rails that she couldn’t reach even whilst on tip toes. That was Charlotte. See why I needed to make her my friend?
At school, my strategy had always been to get the cool kids, aka the bullies to be my friends. It’s how I survived being the only brown kid at school. The first time I got beaten up by another kid I decided that I had to kill them with kindness, humour and also to let them copy my homework. Tanya Sparks was my first and last bully when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Within a few days of beating me up she was calling me her best friend and also getting much better grades. Since then I was better at spotting them and befriending them before any punches were thrown.
So, I asked Charlotte out for a drink one Saturday and we became friends. We shared a healthy appetite for drinking and partying, so it became a regular thing on Saturdays. There was a bar in Selfridges and we’d drink happy hour Sex on the Beach cocktails while Charlotte and the handsome French bar tender, Jean-Pierre flirted the socks off each other. Then the two of us would hit the town drinking, laughing and dancing the night away. Charlotte always had the attention of the guys. I wasn’t interested as I was in a relationship with Jason, who was gorgeous, all the girls fancied him. He was my first proper boyfriend now I was out of the watchful gaze of my strict Indian parents and I had high expectations. But in reality I felt a little underwhelmed. He seemed to be what all the other girls wanted and he was beautiful and loving, but something just didn’t feel quite right, for me at least.
One Saturday night over what had become our usual drinks after work and in the comfort of my drunkenness, I spilt the beans about a snog I’d had with Elle. That was all Charlotte needed to be convinced that I was gay. I’d snogged Elle (or rather, she’d snogged me) in my first few months at Uni. I’d told Charlotte about this incident and even though I was now dating Jason, I’d felt compelled to share. So it wasn’t that random a thought, that I could be gay. I had realised I might be too. The Jenny incident had put ‘me’ firmly in a box until the Elle incident when I realised I really didn’t know how to go about this lesbianism business.
Elle was an all-encompassing nightmare rollercoaster, much more terrifying than when I got stuck on the Flying Fish ride at Thorpe Park that time, also my first time on a rollercoaster. The parallels are quite shocking.
When I started Uni, I was devastated to find that this girl, Elle, just didn’t like me. She seemed to go out of her way to make snidey remarks or undermine me. I wasn’t used to this. The truth is, Elle scared the shit out of me. She was hot as hell and exuded a power and confidence that had desperate-to-be-liked little me, quaking in my boots. She was on my course and also in my halls of residence and we shared some friends so it was hard to avoid her. Then suddenly, late one Thursday night at ‘Fruity’ at the student union, she came up and started dancing with me. How random, I thought. The thing is, it was kind of sexy.
She kissed my neck while we danced and it felt like a grenade going off in my drunken euphoric mind as I struggled to make sense of it.
Was this really happening?
Later that night, Elle and I were alone in the kitchen of our floor at halls. She was making something to drink and turned to me and asked me if I’d ever kissed a girl.
I said no, because I hadn’t.
I thought Shit, I want this conversation to continue, so I said “Have you?”, to which she replied “Yes” (which I later learned wasn’t true), so I said “So kiss me then”, which I cannot believe I actually said.
And so she did.
She kissed the life out of me and then backed into me and it was the most incredible experience of my 18 year old life.
I stayed in Elle’s room that night and left sheepishly in the morning.
What the fuck had just happened?
Well, not much as it turned out because we were both entirely clueless and had just rolled around drunkenly on the tiny bed still in our bras and knickers.
I skulked into lectures that morning and sat in the huge lecture hall. I went out for a smoke and saw Elle, she gave me a wink.
Fuck, I hope nobody saw.
I got back to my halls around midday, straight after lectures. My head was now spinning as I started to try and make sense of the monumental events of the previous night. Before I reached my room as I was climbing the stairs, I bumped into my friend Susanne. She was beautiful and blonde and Irish and in that gorgeous lilt she said to me from the top of the stairs, “I heard something about you,”
“What?” I said.
“Something about you, and Elle and LESBIANISM”.
There it was, that fucking word. I don’t think I’d ever heard it said out loud before. I hadn’t even begun to get my head around what had happened the night before and here I was being grilled about it. I could feel myself sizzling like a lamb chop.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about” I said and pegged it to my room, suddenly aware that this was much bigger than the Jenny incident and I couldn’t blag my way out of this one.
Shit, Elle was telling all and sundry it seemed and I didn’t want a soul to know. I just wanted people to fucking like me! I really really really didn’t need this on top of everything else. But the cat was out of the bag and she wouldn’t shut the fuck up.
So, I became ‘the lesbian’ at Uni. The Asian crew dropped me. And I smoked a lot of weed and took a lot of ecstasy. Until Tony Chong stole my stash one day, forcing me to get a Saturday job at Selfridges.
So, the Selfridges era was complicated.
I hadn’t worked out how I’d tell my strict Indian parents that I had a boyfriend yet so the idea of being gay was well out of the realms of comfort.
Anyway, that didn’t matter, because Charlotte had decided that she was going to take me to a lesbian club. Eek, or words more extreme than that were going through my mind. Anyway, after some drinks we went to the Vespa Lounge just off Tottenham Court Road. I remember the anticipation and the nervous excitement, my heart racing. I had no idea what to expect but I knew I had a pretty good wingman in Charlotte.
The extent of my lesbianism at this stage had been the Jenny incident, kissing Elle and having a crush on Michaela Strachan as a kid...and then there was also ‘the kiss’ on Brookside which had me far too enthralled. However, these were clearly quite defining points in my life as here I was in the Vespa Lounge with the Great Dane and wall to wall women. I can remember feeling petrified, even through the haze of vodka.
As we walked into the packed bar, I was being stared at by what felt like every pair of eyes in the heaving, groping mass of women. Like they were vampires and yes I was…fresh meat! The music was blaring into my ears and I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the atmosphere.
We squeezed our way through the crowd and found a quieter corner at the back of the bar. At the time it felt like an age that we sat there as I looked at the women around me whilst also trying to be cool and avoid any eye contact, especially as the idea of talking to any of them was really freaking me out.
I ended up meeting eyes with a gorgeous girl with dark hair and green eyes and she smiled. I tried to smile back but my heart was pounding and I think I moved in slow motion and managed to pull a face that ended up looking like I was stuck on that rollercoaster with a pained grimace, while the right side of my upper lip quivered uncontrollably. I looked away again as quickly as I could. I really didn’t like how awkward and vulnerable I felt in this place, with all these women.
I managed to squirm around uncomfortably until I finally begged Charlotte
“Please can we get out of here!”
She was being as cool and calm as ever and of course getting lots of attention of her own while seeming entirely nonchalant and aloof. It wasn’t quite the experience I had expected, although I’m not sure what my expectations really were. Nonetheless it was an experience. The first of many with Charlotte as it turned out.
'Fresh Meat' and Reeta's poetry are published in Notes on a Page - the first anthology from She Voices, a London-based women writers group with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Meditations, memoir, glimpses of history, a peek into a futuristic world, poetry and song lyrics to stir the heart, tales of daring and short stories showcase the talent of women who share the joy of writing to both explore their true selves and to work for wider social justice.
All profits go to women's charities.
Link to pre-order the anthology: http://www.palewellpress.co.uk/Palewell-Publications.html#Notes-Page
Link to the She Voices website: https://shevoices.net/
Reeta's website: http://reetaloishaw.com/