Names have been changed for this article. However, there is nothing written here which isn’t already in the public domain, and freely available on the internet via a Google search using real names.
I love the non-fiction written by the late comedian Kenneth Williams, particularly a collection of his letters published after his death. He took letter writing seriously did Kenneth, and I would love to ask someone who knew him really well, Barbara Windsor for instance, what she thinks he would have made of email.
I used to do a lot of letter writing. In one of the roles I had at work it was my unpaid duty, in the wee quiet hours of night shift, to write to colleagues who were on long-term sick leave. They would receive missives from me, keeping them up to date with exciting work news, such as transfers and promotions, but I knew perfectly well that the recipients used to skip these bits, and cut straight to the stuff about squabbles and extra marital affairs. How lovely it would be, I thought, to have a penfriend. It was quite selfish of me really, to bestow these missives only upon friends, Romans, countrymen, relations, and colleagues. Surely people in distant lands could be as equally enthralled if they lent me their ears? I set about acquiring a penfriend to call my very own.
I had five altogether, though not all at the same time. One set of Australians, two lots of Canadians, and two Norwegians. I don’t have penfriends any more, and I never will again. The idea of penfriends is exactly what it says on the back of the packet somewhere near the sell by date. Pen and friend, friend and pen. Friends through the pen, who communicate via the pen, and only the pen. Nothing else but the pen. Just the pen. End of. Sadly, none of them seemed to be able to grasp this concept, because all of them, bar one, decided to pay a visit.
The one who didn’t, was the person I got along with the best, so that speaks for itself really. He was a chap in Norway who eventually got sick of me, but being a kind and polite sort of fellow, he let me down gently, and thoughtfully passed on my name and address to his great-aunt Clara. I was happy to write to great-aunt Clara, but not so happy when she telephoned and announced her intention to come and stay for four days. I was quite young then, and Clara was in advanced old age. This reflects badly on me I know, but I had my friends and stuff to do, and I didn’t want to be caring for an elderly lady who was not a relation, over the best part of a week. Concerns were raised by Clara’s daughter, who telephoned before Clara arrived expressing dismay. Apparently her mother had booked and paid for her flight to Newcastle before anyone in the family could stop her. To my credit, I might have moaned privately, but I looked after Clara well. She had a really lovely time.
Then there was Jeanette from Canada, who unfortunately died suddenly, and naturally I was very upset. However it was Jeanette who had been my pen pal, not her husband, and definitely not her teenage daughter, both of whom materialised in Ryton less than a month later. Canada featured again a couple of years on, when new penfriend Mary arrived with her husband, son, and father in tow. They were perfectly nice people, but we had little in common, and after their stay our letters grew more and more sporadic, like batteries running down.
They say that everyone has their five minutes of fame, or is it fifteen? I can’t remember. Had I allowed it to, my few minutes would have come in the late nineties, and it was all down to a penfriend.
I’ve never read the tabloids, but at work we had a tea fund and the profits were used to buy the morning papers to read during our breaks. We took it in turns to collect them on our way in. This is relevant to the tale I am about to tell. It was the summer of 1998, and my turn to collect the papers.
I’d been corresponding with Ann in Australia for several weeks. She worked with the police on the mounted division, and she lived with her partner Jenna. She was fond of telling me how many acres of land they owned, and, obscurely, that she had a tractor. The tractor came into it a lot, but I never found out what she did with it. Just ride around her many acres I suppose. From her letters, she sounded busy, so I was confident that there was precious little chance of her alighting upon British soil any time soon. I was wrong. She wrote to tell me she had been seconded to the British Army for a couple of weeks to fine-tune her horse riding skills. She would be staying in barracks with the Royal Horse Artillery in London, after which she wanted to come and see me, before getting a ferry from North Shields to Norway, where Jenna would fly out to meet her for a vacation, and then they would fly back to Australia together. She arrived in England and asked me to call her at the barracks. I telephoned a couple of times, and on both occasions I was flattered at how important I was made to feel by the people putting the calls through. I was always addressed as Ma’am, which has never happened before or since. About a week into Ann’s visit, I rang a third time, and I was a tad miffed when I found that deference had been replaced by hostility. Ann was no longer there I was told, and no, he didn’t know where she was, and furthermore he didn’t care. There was no point in my ringing again he said, and then he hung up on me. Mobile phones weren’t commonplace then, and private homes did not usually have internet access. I had no means of speaking to Ann. Baffled, I waited for her to contact me.
It was a warm month, and in the evenings I enjoyed sitting outside with my newspaper, always the Daily Telegraph. I was out there one night sipping coffee, and I came across an article buried at the bottom of a page in the middle. It said that somebody called Leanne, a cavalry soldier in the King’s Troop no less, had been caught in a compromising situation with a female police officer over here from Australia. It was a time when there were no rights for gay people, not even equal ones. Did the top idiots in the army have nothing better to do? I thought. It seemed to me that if indiscretions had occurred, the couple had been where they could expect privacy, just leave them alone I grumbled. By indiscretions, I mean if they had been cheating on their respective partners. If not, I couldn’t see it was anybody’s business. I mulled over the coincidence. An Australian woman, with the police, over here riding a horse with the army. I wonder if that’s where Ann is? Then realisation dawned, slowly, washing over me like the tide creeping about my bare feet. I thought back to my final phone call with the British Army. Abrupt and rude. Then vaguely, and painstakingly slowly, something else came to mind. I remembered the tabloids I’d been carrying into work every morning, but never actually read myself. Something on the front cover drifted into my conscience, something to do with the army. Ten minutes later I was in the Spar shop, and there it all was, spread before me; “Leanne the gay girl gunner caught naked in bed with a woman copper,” boomed the front page. Not just on the front one either, but several other pages as well. For the remainder of the week, I collected the tabloids for work, and squirreled second copies into the depths of my car boot to devour privately later on. I hadn’t heard from Ann, but I knew she was OK, because she’d decided to put across her version of events, and to do this she went to the Sun. She said she would never cheat on her partner. I read it all, and I believed it all (even though it was the Sun). Ann had told me (in her letters) how happy she was with Jenna. I felt I knew what had happened. I reckoned that just because Ann was known to be gay, some homophobic jumped up idiot had decided to make her life difficult, and had seized upon the first opportunity he or she could find. I was horrified at the injustice of it all. I had to stick with her and render support I decided.
Eventually she called from somewhere in Sheffield. Could I possibly pick her up at Leeming Bar? I declared I could, but I withheld some thrilling news, because I wanted to keep it as a beautiful surprise. Jenna had been on the phone, and she was coming to England, arriving at Newcastle Airport the very next day. After everything she’d been through, this would be an enormous relief to Ann, just to know that her loving partner would shortly be at her side. I couldn’t wait to see her face when I told her.
So, I was in Leeming Bar Motorway Services on a fine May night, having driven down from the North East. I waited in the car. A vehicle pulled up and Ann and Leanne hopped out. I hadn’t expected to see Leanne, but I knew who she was because her photo had been in the papers every day. I was glad of the chance to meet her and offer support. That support would be unconditional of course, but any notion I’d had of their not being in a relationship immediately dissipated. The two had a long goodbye, a very long one. During it, I stood there looking around, and wondered – oh lots of things really. How long can you kiss someone without ever coming up for air? Does my bottom wobble like that when I’m upset? How do they get the white lines so straight when they paint the bays in a car park? Eventually their farewells were done, and Ann staggered tearfully into my back seat. I never did get to meet Leanne; she drove straight off covered in mascara streaks. I began to lack confidence that my announcement about Jenna presently being in the air somewhere above Hong Kong, would be well received. I imparted the news as brightly as I could. There was no reply, but the sobs got louder.
Morning dawned, and I was ready to go to the airport. I didn’t even bother to ask Ann to come with me, because despite her lack of enthusiasm the previous evening, I just took it for granted that she would be desperate to.
“I think I’ll stay here.”
“What?” I was incredulous.
“I’m really tired; I just want to stay here.”
I wafted the remote control towards the teletext displayed on the TV.
“Yeah, but look it says there that Jenna’s flight is coming into land now. That means that she will be through customs more or less when we get there. I can just drop you and wait outside. I mean, I’m sure the first time you see her you’ll want to be on your own. I can stay in the car, then when we come home I’ll go out for a bit so that you two can have some time together.”
“No, I’m too tired.”
I felt sorry for Jenna, as she looked anxiously about the airport, searching for me, but with her main hopes clearly focused on seeing Ann. It was hard to know what to say. It got even harder driving home.
“Ann would never do that, never do that. It is all so wrong. I know she wouldn’t. The press have got hold of this, they’re victimising her and that other girl, just because she’s gay. She wouldn’t do that to me. God it’s a nightmare.”
A nightmare indeed, and one where I wanted to help, but I was furious at having to lie by omission for a person who, as the week wore on, I realised I did not like at all. What didn’t I like about her? Everything really. I objected to her attitude, her arrogance, her conceit, and the colour of her shorts. I wasn’t that keen on Jenna either if I’m being honest, she got on my wrong side pretty much immediately. First off, it was my because of my house. A two up two down home built in 1919. Jenna disapproved, referring to it as my “unit,” and comparing it to the residence she shared with Ann.
“We have several acres of land and a wood burning stove. Ann has her tractor you know, she loves her tractor, she’s always out there on it, pottering away, going round and round.”
” Like a teddy bear?” I asked. She didn’t get it.
“So what does she do on it?”
“She rides on it.” Well obviously.
I had cause to run an errand down to my parent’s home and I took Jenna with me. Taking in the sight of their bungalow and garden, she said out loud; “This is more like it.” Yes honestly – she did!
She was unimpressed with my car, too.
“Does this car have air-conditioning? Ours has.”
“Yes,” I replied, “open the window.”
“My tractor even has a cooling system,” murmured Ann.
Then there was night when they both complained they felt sick. I was on an early shift the next day and I went to bed early. Once I was out of the way they disinfected the entire kitchen. Far from being grateful, I was deeply offended at the inference their food had been contaminated. I suspected it had everything to do with their having spent all afternoon in the pub. Not just any pub either, a “Lovely olde worlde old-fashioned pub,” they’d “discovered.” Closer interrogation revealed they’d been in Wetherspoons.
There were few dull moments, we never had to worry about there not being anything on the telly. Evening tedium was broken most nights when Leanne telephoned the land line. Ann took the phone upstairs and conducted the conversations out of ear shot, while Jenna sat with me chewing her bottom lip. If Ann had been me, and Jenna had been Heather, and I’d done that…… well I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.
Nevertheless, through gritted teeth I managed to be a good host. I took them on several excursions in my un-air conditioned VW. I’d heard tell of their camping adventures, where they hiked for miles, daring tales of catching fish with spears, and cooking them at midnight beneath a starlit sky. So when I took them to see Dunstanburgh Castle, it didn’t cross my mind that they would have any trouble walking the mile up from Craster to get to it. Ann limped throughout, moaning about her knee, her lungs, her liver and her leg, clutching on to Jenna who in turn complained about the wind. It was during this walk that my frayed temper finally snapped. In between hobbling and moaning, Ann announced breezily;
“I forgot to tell you, but someone from the Sun might be coming out tomorrow.”
“The Sun who?” I asked – instantly full of suspicion.
“The newspaper the Sun. A reporter.”
“Out to your unit, to speak to me again and possibly take some photos of all of us.”
“Ann needs to keep putting her side of things across,” Jenna chimed in, “because she’s done nothing wrong.” So Jenna had obviously been told about this then.
I’m a gentle soul, I really am, but I lost it.
“No ******* journalist, reporter, photographer, or whatever, will be coming to my house tomorrow, or at any other ********** day of the week, do I make that clear?” I didn’t bother waiting for an answer.
“If I see a reporter anywhere near my house, or even in Greenside, you two will both be out.” I’m not sure how I would actually know it was a reporter if I saw one in Greenside, but that’s completely beside the point. No one said anything for a bit. I was too angry and they were too stunned. I calmed down a little, but I wasn’t out of steam.
“And anyway, how much did you get paid for that original exclusive you gave them?”
“How do you mean?”
“What I say. How much were you paid?” At that time the Sun’s track record on tackling homophobia lay somewhere between shabby and dismal. I let out what had been bubbling inside me for ages.
“What advice did you take before speaking to the Sun? You probably don’t know how homophobic the Sun are, because you don’t live here, but surely Leanne must have known. I’ve read it, you’ve read it. They take the **** out of you relentlessly, so whatever you were paid I hope it was worth it.”
I glowered at Ann. She shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her blue shorts and stared at the ground. She had the look of a woman who has just produced a winning raffle ticket from her handbag, thinking she’s won a world cruise, only to find she’s now the owner of a porcelain spaniel. In that instant I realised it had never occurred to Ann to ask for a fee. She was so delighted that a national paper would want her on their front page, payment hadn’t even crossed her mind, and if she didn’t mention it, they certainly wouldn’t, but undoubtedly they wanted the story, and they would had have coughed up if pressed.
“You know Ann, I have done everything I can to help you, but have you stopped to consider the trouble I would be in at work if I talked to a newspaper without permission, even indirectly? Or, the fact that I’m not out to everybody, and suddenly you want to put me on the front page of a national rag where the whole bloody country can read it? You really are unbelievable.”
We continued on, Dunstanburgh Castle rising gracefully through the mist before us. Grasping that Ann’s silence was due to her gradual realisation that she’d missed out on a sizeable chunk of cash, I saw an opportunity to move in for the kill.
“Well whatever it was, at least it will have been a few thousand, enough to pay for your trip here, and for your holiday in Norway and still some left for when you get home, so that’s something I suppose.” I remained silent for a couple of minutes, building up to something I knew would really hurt.
“I expect you’ll even be able to get another tractor out of it, and then you can have one each.”
My bad temper morphed into an exceedingly contented one.
The Sun reporter did not come to my home, whether or not he set foot in Greenside I couldn’t say, though there was an hour during which Ann was mysteriously unaccounted for. My Australian visitors set sail for Norway. Jenna emailed shortly after they’d got home and said they’d split, “Because of what happened in Norway.” Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get her to divulge exactly what did happen in Norway. It is one of my life’s major disappointments that I shall take ignorance of this fact to my grave.
Standing at North Shields ferry terminal, watching their ferry disappear over the North Sea, I knew I’d never see either of them again, and I have to admit I did feel a tiny tinge of sadness. They were many things, Ann and Jenna, not least of which, was entertaining.
Tractor and newspaper animation courtesy Animated Images