First TimeKentish Town Lady
The mail delivery lying on my doormat had the usual mix of unsolicited advertising for chair lifts, recliners, tilting beds, and baths with doors. The delights of being old. But then I spotted a rarity, a handwritten envelope on crisp cream paper. The hand was not very firm, but well-formed, so I concluded that it was from someone at least my own age. This is a warning sign, because it's the way that news of the death of a friend or relative can arrive.
I took the envelope in to the living room where I was halfway through a mug of coffee and sat down to open it. There were several pages, quite close written, and an address at the top that I didn't recognise. I started to read:
I wonder if you remember 50 years ago when we shared 5 weeks in the summer of 1969?I think you might.I know that those weeks are lodged in a recess of my mind where I store my most precious moments.Mine has been a long life, and you will have worked out that I have now reached 90.
We were close.I was surprised — almost shocked — that we grew together so quickly and completely.As my life draws to a close, I wanted to find out if you were still living, and if so to say some things which I felt I needed to share. I asked my step-nephew if he could find you, and it seems that he didn't have much difficulty. James Vesey is not a common name, and evidently you have had an active life. It's difficult to believe that you are now in your mid-seventies.
I need to go back to the end of that last week and……"
After the first two sentences I knew the author: Martha Jameson had drawn me into a life-changing period of my young life.
I'm going back now to the summer she mentions, and to a gaggle of people — I think that there were nine of us — walking through the Soho district of London. It was early afternoon, and we'd been to an Italian restaurant for our regular Friday pizza and red wine lunch.
We were a development group of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and the like, and I was with them for the year out that we architectural students spent after three years of our five-year course. I'm at the back of this group, talking to a mature woman who walked with style, and not the over-casual fast amble of us students.
"I'm really sorry that I haven't got to talk to you before on one of these jaunts — I feel I've been missing out," she said
"It felt as if perhaps you were too grand — a bit remote," I replied, "I'm sure I was mistaken".
"Oh dear. I don't feel a bit grand or remote, but that's no excuse."
We'd had an animated half hour of conversation in the restaurant, largely about the value of good old buildings in preserving some of the character of our environment. I hadn't thought as much about it as I should, but she was passionately committed to conservation of all that had value in keeping.
There was a short moment of silence, then "If you haven't got plans for tomorrow afternoon I wonder if you would give me a hand moving a load of books? I've had them stored in my spare bedroom, but I like to have books around me, and I've built shelves in the living room which are now ready to be filled. I'd be happy to pay you because it will take a few hours, and it's quite heavy work."
"O.K., I'd be pleased to do that, particularly if you give me some supper!" I said, a bit cheekily.
"It's a deal. I live in Kentish Town. I'll write down the address and instructions when we get to the office. It's easy to find, only 5 minutes' walk from Kentish Town station on the Northern Line."
We had reached the office. She gave me the details, but did it discreetly, pinned to a piece of office admin. I wasn't sure if it was to avoid embarrassing me or herself. But she was so self-confident that it was probably my blushes that she was saving.
On Saturday morning I was busy. I was never a late riser, so by 9am I was in the Safeway supermarket in Edgware Road buying our supplies for the week ahead. I shared a flat with 5 others, and 2 of us did mutual shopping and cooking. It was my turn this week as Bob had gone to visit his folks out of town. I had other things to do as I would soon be moving to another flat up the river, but I set off after a quick lunch of ham roll and a glass of milk.
I walked up to Euston underground station, ducking back into the southern edge of Regents Park, which I loved, rather than walk along the Euston Road. That took about half an hour and then I had to catch the Northern Line to Kentish Town, where I arrived with about 10 minutes to spare: I had been instructed to arrive at 2pm.
London in 1969 was a quite different place to the wealthy and exciting capital city it has become, some of it on the back of a lot of dodgy money. There were bombsites still evident, most of them used as car parks. The trolleybuses had only disappeared 7 years earlier and the buses still had open platforms and conductors, or 'clippies' as they were known. Parking meters were a new sight. Supermarkets were uncommon, and where they existed, they were still on the high streets.
There was dust, dirt and rubbish to go with the grey buildings that had accumulated years of grime from the soot and sulphur laden atmosphere. There were signs of regeneration, and some areas had survived the war with their charms intact; but mostly it still had the air of a city still struggling to get back on its feet.
Behind the recently opened Sainsbury's in Kentish Town Road, which is where I was heading to find Martha's house, the tightly packed terraced houses were still largely rented or owned by people who did not have the financial resources to 'improve' them. 'Gentrification' had only just begun and Martha's house was one of only two or three which had clearly had money spent on them.
By the time I'd taken all this in and worked out where I was, I'd arrived at Martha's. When she let me in it felt immediately as if I was in a quiet sanctuary. Everything was clean and bright; walls had been removed so that, beyond the area immediately inside the front door, you could see through from living area to eating area and on to the galley kitchen and yard with lots of planting.
"Hi James, thanks for coming, and for arriving on time. It's a relief to see you because I would have struggled to manage these books by myself."
"It's good to come and see you in your natural micro-environment. It's as pleasing from the outside as it is in here, so I see you haven't adopted a camouflage!"
"No, us middle class trendy pioneers like to run our flag up the masthead. I've only been here a year, but I wanted to get everything done quickly, not drag on. Anyway, come inside and sit down for a moment."
That's what I did, on a sofa facing the wall which had the evidence of two fireplaces that had once been in separate rooms until the dividing wall was removed. There was a series of alcove recesses between the chimney breasts, which were fitted with book-shelves but still waiting for the books.
"You can see the shelves to be filled, and the books are upstairs. I was going to make the room that they are in a study, with books being a natural part of that. But I've changed my mind, and quite like the idea of having a spare room. Your job is to bring the books down, and my job is to arrange them. O.K.?"
"Let's go upstairs and see the cargo."
The stairs rose directly from the living area, with a half landing to turn it through 1800. Upstairs the landing had the main bedroom straight ahead, and the book-filled second bedroom to the right. The books were neatly stacked in piles. Beyond this room the landing led to the bathroom door.
"Would you like a drink before you start?"
"No thanks. Let's get going and stop for a cup of tea a bit later."
"Good plan. I have tried to arrange the piles so that you can bring them down in some sort of logical order. Just let me know when you get to the bottom of a pile before you start the next one."
She stood and looked at me and her face opened up in a broad smile. "This is going to be fun!" she said and trotted off down the stairs.
I will try to explain the oddity of my situation. Martha was my superior in almost every way: she had been my senior in our jobs, I guessed she was nearly twice my age, she had wider experience, better qualifications and seemed widely travelled. So it was difficult for me to fall into a comfortable friendship with her. But I sensed that she wanted just that, and I was going to have to try to ignore a sense of inferiority. I haven't often felt like that.
I got on with my labours and before long we'd made good progress, probably nearly half the way through, and I was in danger of overwhelming her with books. It clearly took more time to arrange them than to carry them downstairs.
"How about me making a pot of tea, while you catch up here…" I asked
"Great idea. See what you can find and shout if you're stuck.".
I went into the kitchen and had no difficulty in finding mugs (hanging up), teapot on a shelf, and next to it tea leaves in a caddy. Milk (no surprise) was in the 'fridge. "All found" I called. Teabags had been invented, but only about 3% of the population used them.
We sat with our mugs of tea looking at the filled shelves. They looked good.
I hadn't really given myself time to examine the books as I carried them, but now I began to sense their variety. The books on architecture and architectural history were obviously still to come, but history, philosophy, poetry, humour, travel and languages were covered by what I had already moved.
"The books are a kind of autobiography" she said "Most of them I will probably not read again, but it's surprising how often I refer to them and look up particular bits. I couldn't be without them; I would feel diminished. It's also a very personal form of furnishing a room."
I looked around the walls at the pictures. There were a few watercolours, exquisite in their way, but most of the pictures were abstract or semi-abstract, some geometric and some more free form. There were a couple of mounted photographs which I thought I recognised as Florence and Sienna. There were also some finely drawn pen and ink studies of Renaissance buildings which I guessed again were Italian. Just enough, but not an excess, they created an interesting and friendly atmosphere.
We chatted on about how we chose the artifacts we wanted to live with. Neither of us, it seemed, were grabbed by the minimalism of some (particularly architects), who want to strip out anything which interferes with the purity of the space. We both felt the need to have objects which referred to our own tastes and experiences — mine, of course, rather less developed than hers.
"I'm going to begin stacking again before you begin to overload me again. Sit there and wait please."
"Yes Miss Jameson. I'll finish my tea and watch progress." She turned and gave me an amused look.
She was now bending to fill some lower shelves. The skirt she wore was just above knee length in a fine navy and white check, shaped to taper to the knee. As she bent it stretched, and each buttock was clearly defined by the cleavage.
Up to this point I can honestly say that I had not really thought of Martha in sexual terms at all, largely because of the deference I've already described. But suddenly I did, as I realised that for all her near-40-years (which seems quite old when you're 22) she was attractively shaped.
"You've gone very quiet" she said, rising and turning to me. I blushed, something I do very easily. "If that flush is related to what you were studying then I'm very flattered. And now I'm ready for some more books."
I took the mugs to the sink and went upstairs. I was a bit confused, and I felt the need to talk to her and find out a lot more about her. At the moment she was probably thinking of me as a teenage sex maniac who definitely needed watching, and it would be nice to put her mind at rest. I wasn't a teenager anyway.
We went on with our work and seemed to match our pace to each other's rather better, probably because I was beginning to tire.
It was mid-summer, so it was still light when we finished. Martha stood up and stretched. This time it was the breasts that I took in.
"Come and sit outside and have a glass of wine" she said, not waiting to see if I was going to blush again. We went to sit in the little backyard, which was so cunningly planted that it almost qualified as a garden. We sat next to each other on a teak bench with a cold glass of white Bordeaux.
"I think we both need to find out a bit about each other because I feel our relationship is changing from how it's been for the last year. So you really have no need to be embarrassed when you look at me in a different way: it's quite natural, and I look at you in a new way too. It isn't a coincidence that I waited until you were leaving the group before I approached you. It would help if you could tell me about your experiences with females. Would you mind?"
"I don't mind talking about it, but it isn't that interesting." I paused for a few moments to gather my thoughts. "I suppose the essence of it is that I seem to have had extremely poor judgement. There have been girls who have formed a strong attachment to me which I have not reciprocated, and the opposite is equally true. My sexual experience is limited to some mutual masturbation, and to chastely sharing a bed with females, but I am still a virgin, and at my age that can become a bit oppressive. I feel I need to cross a boundary and begin living in a country that I've only looked at from near-distance. It looks enticing. Perhaps it will be a disappointment, but I'd sure like to try"
"At the risk of sounding a know-all I have to say that I suspected most of what you have just said. It's just my instinct; there were no give-aways," Martha said.
"No, I'm not surprised. I'm not exactly a mystery wrapped up in an enigma am I?"
"True; and thank you for sharing it with me. I must respond by telling you a bit about myself. You called me Miss Jameson earlier on, but I have been married, although I have chosen to revert to my maiden name. I was married to a man called Richard, who is still a friend. I was deeply attached to him, and stayed married for nearly 8 years, but he was a homosexual. I think he probably knew when we got married, but he became convinced as time went on, and he chose to do something about it.
At that time homosexual acts were illegal, so his activities were clandestine, and to me they were necessarily very seedy. Eventually he received a police warning for hanging around toilets on Hampstead Heath, but fortunately they couldn't charge him because they had no evidence that an offence had been committed.
By 1965 it was obvious that an act of parliament would soon remove the illegality of homosexual acts between consenting men over 21. Richard's ambition was to form a lasting same sex relationship, when that was legal. So he asked me to divorce him, and I agreed. I cared for him enough to want him to be happy, and anyway the marriage seemed to have become a bit of an empty shell.
Are you all right with this so far? I really don't want this to become a heavy confessional."
"It's absolutely all right with me," I replied
"Thank you. Post-divorce I thought I might break free a bit, because Richard had been my only sexual partner, and that hadn't been a wild success. I accepted a date with a nice, ordinary sort of a guy, and quite enjoyed it, platonically. On the second date he started asking about sleeping arrangements and where we could share a bed. Slightly reluctantly I invited him back. It was pretty disastrous. He proved barely house-trained and in bed he was as subtle as an express train at full steam ahead. I couldn't wait to get rid of him".
"To be brief there was one more similar experience before I gave up. The fact remains that I still yearn for a relationship with a man who sees sex as an element of partnership, but not the reason for it. Marriages or partnerships seem to work only if there's a reasonable equality of selflessness and I think that the way a man behaves in bed is an extremely good way of judging how selfless he can be. And vice versa of course" she added with a grin.
I thanked her for telling me this. I was a bit overwhelmed by someone of another generation being so open.
"Now, I think it would be a good idea if I went and made us some supper, which I have to say you have more than deserved. You are to sit inside and have a rummage through the books and find something to read."
"I need to use the bathroom first."
"Carry on, you know where it is."
I did have a good rummage to form an idea of what was there. I decided not to try anything which might take a week to read, so I picked a translation of Bocaccio's Decameron, and re-read a few of the bawdy stories. I particularly liked the one where a hermit shows a young maiden how to put the devil (his) in hell (hers). Unfortunately for him she becomes insatiable and wants to put the devil in hell every day, and his advancing years can't cope with it. Of course now, approaching 75, I understand it completely but aged 23 it just seemed funny.
I walked over to the kitchen area to watch what was coming. There was some rice on the boil, and a pan containing sliced courgette, chopped up bacon, onion, small mushrooms and tomatoes was bubbling away on the hob. When the rice was cooked and drained, Martha poured a glass of red wine into the frying pan and stirred it all around with the other ingredients.
"I'm sorry this isn't more imaginative, but I thought we'd both be tired, and I'd do something quick and easy. If there's opportunity I'll cook something a bit more special at our leisure."
"Don't worry, I'm looking forward to this."
We sat down at the table. It was very tasty. Our talk was limited: we'd been taught by our mothers that it's rude to talk with your mouth full!
When we had finished, she looked me in the eye and said, "you don't want to go home tonight do you?".
"It's o.k., I'll be fine. I'm used to doing underground late at night."
"Do you have anything urgent to do tomorrow morning?"
"Then stay here. You'll have to share with me because, as you saw, I still have only one bed. But I don't think I snore, and I promise to give you a fair share of the bed."
"Selflessness in action? O.K. thank you."
We did the small bit of washing-up together. When we'd finished she came and stood in front of me, put her hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes.
"Am I intimidating you?" she asked.
"A bit" I confessed.
"I'm sorry. I suppose it was inevitable, but I'll work on trying to improve."
She moved her head towards me and pressed her lips on mine. I put my arms round her and hugged her warm softness. Her lips opened and her tongue made its way quietly into my mouth. My hands dropped to her buttocks and massaged them with gentle fingers. They were firm but yielding. She held my head in her hands and pulled it down towards her. Her tongue became an active invader, and I gently bit it. Our tongues performed a kind of hide and seek with each other: oral synchronised swimming perhaps. It was a delight. I was excited. Maybe she was too, as she seemed reluctant to pull away when I dropped my hands and disengaged my mouth. My excitement was obvious.
"What's the matter my dear?" she asked softly.
"Nothing is the matter, but I wanted to ask you a question, which may seem odd, but is important to me."
"Are we going to have sex?"
"Why is it important to you to know in advance?"
"Because twice I have been in a position with women when I have sensed that we were moving towards making love. On both occasions, as soon as my hand made a move to feel between their thighs they pulled away as if stung by a wasp, saying 'How could you think that I was that sort of girl?' The words were almost identical, but the incidents were several years apart."
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