The other night, just as I was falling asleep, I found myself remembering the woman who came to my aid in 1971. I was standing at the side of a road with my suitcase and my mother’s sewing machine, waiting to be picked up by a friend from college. She had said “If you need any help, just call me,” and I did. I simply said “Nancy, can you come and get me?” and she did.
I had been married, in April 1969, to AR, a man whom I met while I was at art college in Manchester, England. He was handsome, exciting, and sexy, and I fell for him, completely. He and I thought we were being avant-garde, original, and rebellious when we wore black to our wedding at a registry office. The fact that I hadn’t invited my family should have been my first clue that this was not going to end well. I called my parents afterwards from the phone in a train station. I was excited and happy; they were furious and disappointed.
For a honeymoon, we decided to go somewhere with an unusual name and we picked Giggleswick in Yorkshire. We had to hitchhike to get there because we had no money, and when we got there we had nowhere to stay so we slept overnight in a bus shelter. Planning ahead was obviously not our forté. I had never slept rough before, so that was a first. I remember being quite cold, not really sleeping, and feeling undignified. There would be more demeaning to come, but I didn’t see it coming.
Over time, I began to realize that I had married a man who wanted to control more of my personality and behaviour than I had anticipated. Because I was in love, though, I didn’t recognize that this was not good for me. As he discouraged my communications with my family and friends, I simply thought I was doing my best to make him happy and to make the marriage work. He also had me discard all the clothes I had from my former life as a secretary because, he said, we weren’t like “those people.” We weren’t “loons” or “plebs.” We were cool and hip.
Slowly but surely, I realized that smugly perceiving ourselves as being different from most people meant that we were not going to conform to normal standards of appearance, employment, or bill payment. As our hair grew longer, our debts piled up. We rarely paid the rent and resented landlords who demanded it. Once, when a landlord seeking overdue payment entered our bedsitter while we were in bed, AR was so furious he arranged for revenge. He was working for a restaurant at the time, and before we left the rental place he brought home several fish from the restaurant’s dumpster. We then put those fish inside, underneath, and behind various items of furniture and the fireplace. The goal was to make the place unlivable for anyone else, and I have felt guilty about that ever since.
In three years, we lived in twenty-four different places. We both got various jobs in the hospitality and service industries, but they never lasted long. The requirements of reliability and conformity made that impossible. We had met at Manchester College of Art and subsequently spent a year at Rochdale College of Art but, ultimately, we realized that we were never going to make it in the art world. I was technically fairly competent but not sufficiently creative. He was creative to the point of derision. I think he fancied himself as a kind of L.S. Lowry without the naivety, Abbie Hoffman without the political activism, Timothy Leary without the research, Keith Moon without the Who. None of the instructors understood him, he said.
At some point, I’m not sure when, I went back to the south of England to visit my family there. I remember seeing my sister Grace and her husband Jim and having a conversation that changed the direction of my life. Jim was an administrator in the school system, and he recommended Bretton Hall, a teacher training college in Yorkshire that he thought might be a good place for me. He may even have pulled some strings for me, but I don’t know that for sure. Grace and Jim also loaned me some much-needed cash, and I went back up north.
(Go to Part 2)