Madrid Spain 1995
I woke up, from an unwise session mixing cider and vodka, with my face submerged in my handbag. The bar was so noisy it was amazing I’d gone to sleep. The bag must have been functioning as a pair of ear muffs, or a mini tent. This falling asleep in public, when I’d overindulged, had been a key element of my behaviour since I’d started drinking alcohol. I had fallen asleep at clubs, next to blaring speakers, or in the middle of the dance floor. Indeed when I went to a party the first thing I’d do was identify where I would later go to sleep, which was usually the host’s bed, not entirely welcomed by them. “Wake up,” said my friend Susanna, shaking my arm, “the bar’s closing we’re going to have to go home now.” Susanna had moved to Spain and I was visiting her as well as covering a story about the independence movement in the Basque country. I’d already got into trouble in Madrid, scouring the streets for ecstasy with a Moroccan drug dealer, and ending up in San Blas, an area so dodgy the dealer said “we must leave.” I’d never experienced racism in Spain, as people thought I was a rich South American, but when I was walking around Madrid with the Moroccan people looked at me like I was dirt.
Nonetheless, I had a deep affection for Spain, as I had lived in Spain for four months when I was 18 in 1988. It was the first time I’d been happy in my entire teenage years. In England I felt miserable and ugly, in Spain I felt attractive and like I fitted in. I’d travelled all over Spain learning Spanish, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada and Salamanca. People said I spoke Spanish so well I must be a spy. I met the first man I fancied, a German who, rather dubiously, said he liked SS uniforms as they looked so good on blondes. I snogged him but obviously couldn’t have sex. He wrote to me from Germany but, of course, wasn’t available as he had a girlfriend there. When I got back from Spain and was doing my Spanish S level oral exam, the examiner asked me what monuments I’d visited in Salamanca. “None,” I said shame faced, “I spent my whole time getting pissed in bars.” “Well you must have done something right, your Spanish is amazing,” she said. “Well it’s amazing what you can learn with a double vodka in your hand.” Of course I’d sometimes got into problems with alcohol in Spain, a presage of things to come, as the measures were so enormous compared to British pubs. But, in typical denial, I just thought this was a problem with Spain and Spanish bars, not that I had a problem with alcohol.
I went to the Basque country to do the feature for the BBC and, amazingly for me, nothing actually went wrong. I got all the interviews, didn’t leave any of them in the back of a cab, and was warmly welcomed by the Basques. I was a bit horrified though when I was recording a pro-independence rally in Bilbao that all the demonstrators started shouting for “coche bombas en Madrid,” car bombs in Madrid. ETA, the Basque nationalist/terrorist/independence group (depending on your perspective) was still active and supported by a significant minority.
I went back to Madrid to say goodbye to Susanna, who’d saved my life when she’d phoned when I was about to cut my throat. She’d sat with me in the depths of my clinical depression, trying to make me talk. But all I could do was stare at the walls. Susanna and I had been friends since I was 10, when we bonded intensely at Wycombe Abbey, an all girls’ boarding school. Night after night all the little girls in the dormitory would howl themselves to sleep, desperately missing their parents and families. One night we had a screaming contest so loud we all had to be put in the sanatorium. I had been keen to go to boarding school, conned by tales of Enid Blyton and Mallory Towers. But there were no midnight feasts at Wycombe Abbey. Just hours of homework which we had to finish with a torch under our duvets every night. We had tiny moments of joy, greeting the stern matron with our knickers on our heads but we couldn’t even indulge in my childish passion, shoplifting Hello Kitty toys, as we weren’t allowed out alone. Solitary only children, Susanna and I became inseparable in the first term. And although I left after a year, we were still very close throughout my teenage years. Susanna was one of the only people I told the full horror of what was happening during my parents’ divorce. To my other school friends, I pretended my parents were still together and said nothing at all. Susanna was like me, chaotic, and our friendship was characterised by frequent mishaps. But we loved each other and it is still one of the most important relationships in my life.
Rome 1987 Me: 17 Susanna: 18.
“Will you do threesome?” said a fat, hairy, man in the front car of a convoy of vehicles pursuing us down the street. “You are very pretty, how much do you want? I’ll pay you a thousand lire.” How much? we thought panicking and rushed off down the street. But in fact a thousand lire was about 50p. We’d set out dressed appropriately so we didn’t have any trouble with men. In virginal outfits with white lace tops and skirts. We were clearly street smart, mature and experienced and thought looking like a virgin was a turn off to men. As the convoy of cars had swelled to 15, including a tank and a juggernaut, we realised we’d made a slight mistake.
As we rushed down the street, all the men in the cars started flipping their hands as if we were gay. Oh my god, I thought with horror, not only do these men think we’re prostitutes but they think we’re MEN as well. It was then that I realised what my mother’s stern words not to go to a hotel near the station in Rome had meant. We were in the middle of the red light district and these men thought we were transvestite prostitutes. I suddenly noticed the lurid neon signs on the bars around, clearly pointing to a thriving trade in lady boys. I had never questioned our identity as girls, until now, and being mistaken for (very convincing) girly men was not a compliment.
I had just left an all girls’ boarding school, Roedean, at the age of 17. I was very academic and had passed the entrance exam to Oxford when I was sixteen. I only needed two Es in my A levels to get in. But I was definitely still a virgin and had barely been kissed. I was practically a child at 17. I had still been playing with my teddies, when I was sixteen, running an supremely efficient toy hospital. This inter-railing trip around Europe was the first adult experience I’d had in my life. I was travelling with Susanna, who was slightly more clued up than me. But our naivete had been a magnet for trouble with men everywhere we went.
We ran away from the line of cars following us, taking shelter in a bar. The man in the bar, who had nose hair as long as a beard, gave us an oleaginous look, scanning us up and down and saying that girls like us, “would have a great future in films. “ From his leering looks it was obvious what kind of films he was talking about. He also ran a strip club and invited us to come along and participate.
“We’re not interested in things like that,” I stuttered, blushing deep red.
“Well what about water sports, or a tiny bit of S and M.”
“I don’t like scuba diving and I’m too full for sausage and mash.”
“Can you say that on camera,” he oozed at my face, “you’ve got such a great voice.”
Although not as pretty as my luscious, blonde, best friend, I was a virgin, very busty and extremely innocent. Even in my naïve, childlike, state I could see that this would be an attractive commodity in the world of porn. Not that I had any experience of porn, the only kind of sex I’d looked at was my parents seventies bible, the Joy Of Sex. This prompted me to write a pornographic novel at the age of 10 which had limited scope as I had no idea what a vagina was and thought babies came out of your bum.
Shaken by our experience in the red light district, we decided perhaps going out alone was unwise. There were three young men working in our hotel who had asked us to go out for the night. They must be safe, I wisely said, as they all had thick glasses on. Short sightedness was clearly a recipe for moral probity, I thought. Also, as there were three of them, perhaps it wasn’t a date.
When they arrived that night there were two of them and they’d taken their glasses off. We went out with them to a fun fair outside Rome but we decided we’d better lose them as their eyesight had improved. We then ended up surrounded by an angry and threatening group of men, facing possible gang rape, until we ran, hysterical, to the car of an Italian family.
“What are you doing out here alone?” said the mother, once we were in the car.
“Our friends took off their glasses,” I said, “we had to get away.”
“Italian men are bad news,” the woman said.
“I know,” I said, “they’re as bad news as a force 9 earthquake on the Richter scale.”
We’d had problems with men going right back to France. Men kept hassling us asking why we were alone. So we’d invented two imaginary friends, Hubert and Napoleon, who accompanied us everywhere. This was inspired by a schizophrenic we saw having an animated conversation with no one in the street. But the men didn’t care whether we were mad or not, they still wanted to sleep with us. I say “us,” in fact they all wanted to sleep with my blonde best friend and got me, with my fluent French, to work as a free interpreter. This lack of attention from men, when Susanna was around, had caused certain problems in our relationship. The situation wasn’t helped by my father who’d always told me I “would never be as pretty as Susanna.” Tiny jealousies niggled between us and on Susanna’s 18th birthday I tried to set fire to her hair. I put the little flame out with a bottle of champagne.
We arrived in Juan Les Pins on the south coast of France too late to go to a bank. The place was rammed and we couldn’t find a hotel anyway. So we decided to sleep on the beach. We were soon moved on by the police. When we asked them where we could go they said, “sleep on a park bench.” We took refuge on an empty boat, thinking we could rest there for the night. Until interrupted by a group of thirteen year old French boys who wanted to have sex with us. I say “us,” one of them did fancy me, although his friends said he was mad and should shag Susanna instead. We ended up sleeping, as the police had suggested, on a wooden bench. The resilience of youth!
It was in Venice that we both had our first experience of dope. We had gate-crashed a party in an amazing apartment and someone had handed a spliff to us. At that point the police raided the apartment, causing us to take refuge under a bed. We passed the spliff from one to the other stretched out under the bed, trying not to drop ash in our mouth. Walk on the wild side was playing on the stereo as the police crashed around the room arresting everyone in sight. But luckily they didn’t notice us silently stoned under the bed.
We had more trouble with men on our way down to the Italian coast. A geriatric man who kept telling us to be quiet, tried to snog me on the night train as I was asleep. I was horrified, turning on the light, that someone so old could be trying it on. But it was not the last time I would be molested in my bed.
When we arrived at the coast we’d fucked up our money again, missing the bank and not able to change our travellers cheques. We started stealing bread from tables at a restaurant, and a kindly Italian family invited us to join their meal. When they found out I was only 17 they were horrified saying, “you’re a minor, how can your parents let you travel alone? “
Little did they know that my parents had been in a reverse custody battle for me since their divorce when I was 12. I say reverse as neither of them wanted me. “Go and live with your father,” said my mother trying to eject me from the house at the age of 13. But he couldn’t have me either, he said.
My mother had sent me back to boarding school after the exit from Wycombe Abbey, as she wanted me out of the house. This ejection to boarding school turned out to be a lucky escape. After my father left I was so frightened of my mother I thought I would be murdered in my bed. I spent the whole time checking the house for serial killers, under my bed, in my cupboards, even the cutlery drawer and the deep freeze. They were resilient and flexible creatures these serial killers I thought. Checking wasn’t enough, I also had to find hiding places from the serial killers, such as concealed panels behind the walls, and practice all my escape routes which involved leaping out of the attic window and running along the roof. This was the origin of the OCD that in later years almost wrecked my life. It was only recently I realised that there were no serial killers at Roedean, they only existed at my mother’s house. If I’d been forced to stay at home I could have become like my uncle, who thought he’d discovered a palatial Roman bath, under a traffic light in Knightsbridge, which he thought he owned.
We went from the Italian coast by ferry to Greece, Susanna getting all the attention on the ferry, of course. Bemused by the Greek language signs all over the place, we hopped on a train to meet some friends of Susanna’s at Tholon, a tourist resort. Of course as the signs, unintelligible squiggles to us, went by, we didn’t know whether we were getting any nearer to our destination or not. We kept asking “are we near to Tholon?” and eventually someone said we were there.
We marched into the town stopping by a bar to ask for directions to the hotel. “Hotel?” they said in bemused tones, “this village doesn’t even have a road.” We looked around, the dearth of tourists was clear to see. A farmer wandered by with a donkey, carrying a bale of hay. Confused, we said we were looking for Tholon, but this didn’t seem to be it. “Tholon,” they laughed hysterically, “that’s on the other side of Greece.”
“So where are we going to stay?” we wailed.
“There are a few people camped on the beach,” they said, “but you haven’t got a tent.”
“No,” I said.
“Well you’ll have to sleep under a tree.”
“A tree?” I choked being shaken back to one of the most traumatic memories of my childhood and the origin of my problem with serial killers. I was eight, in Jamaica, watching Friday the 13th. A woman had run away from the killer and looked like she’d escaped, out of breath, leaning against a tree. Suddenly the killer reached round and cut her throat. I’d had an obsessive fear of having my throat cut since then. I barely slept a wink that night. You may wonder why I wanted to cut my own throat. Apart from desiring death, this was also, logically, to prevent the serial killers from getting in there first.
We eventually made it to Tholon, where we slept under a roof instead of a plant. But it was idyllic in Tolon beautiful and unspoilt. And no one had come onto us. In Tholon we were surrounded by sweaty youths. And I was totally ignored as I didn’t speak Greek.
Susanna and I returned to the UK, my Afro hair turned to straw by neglect, looking like Worzel Gummidge in a hurricane. But our return was not without controversy. One of us had lost our ticket and we had to vault over the barriers at Kings Cross. After this wild adventure when we’d barely emerged alive, I settled back into the madness of life at home.