In 1971, after I had left my marriage and moved in with a college friend, Nancy Miller, one of the things I had to resolve was that AR had taken off with the cheque book to our joint account and overspent it by hundreds of pounds. Since he could not be found, I had to repay that money.
While staying with Nancy and her husband Keith, I got a job at a factory called Floral Foundations in order to repay the debt and to reestablish myself. When I had been at Rochdale College of Art, I had learned various skills related to sculpture and, in addition, I took a course in welding at the local technical college. Thanks to this experience, I was able to get a job that required me to spot-weld thousands of metal rings for funeral wreaths. It was an amazing work experience for many reasons, but mostly because it introduced me to some very tough and outspoken women. The workforce was mostly female, and the more experienced employees welded garden furniture and display stands for retail products. They were strong women in more ways than one.
I was very withdrawn and quiet at this time as I tried to work through my heartbreak, and several of the women tried to cajole me out of my depression. I was a bit of an oddity to them because I had a London accent and was the only one of the crew who had been to college. They couldn’t figure out why I was there, but it was ideal for me. I was able to do work that required little thought, spend lots of time thinking about what I was going to do with my life, and start to pay off that debt.
At the time, I wrote an essay about Floral Foundations and it records that I earned £14.50 a week, plus piecework rates. Younger women earned £12.50 a week, and older women with more experience earned about £30. (That’s between roughly $21 Cdn and $51 Cdn per week.) That is not much by anyone’s standards, but at the time it was enough for me to start to become independent.
What I remember most about that job, though, is being amazed at the ways my co-workers laughed about the men in their lives, and that they were clearly confident with or without them. This was a revelation to me. I had always felt that being part of a couple was essential to my security and self-worth. These women showed me I was wrong. Some were married, some were single, some had been married more than once, and at least one appeared unlikely to ever marry. Regardless, they all gave me the sense that if their relationships with men worked out that was fine, but if they didn’t, that was fine, too. They seemed to rely more on their female friendships for emotional support; at least, that’s certainly what it sounded like from their conversations in the workplace.
It may be totally irrelevant, but there was another incident that happened around this time that is forged in my memory. I was on the top deck of a double-decker bus, sitting by a window going home from Floral Foundations when a middle-aged man sat beside me. I remember he was wearing a beige raincoat and he pushed himself into me so that I was squashed up against the wall. Then, he started masturbating under his raincoat. I was completely shocked and disgusted and so I got up to leave. As I did so, he stood up too, and he ran down the stairs and off the bus. I looked out of the window and watched as he ran away. I then sat back down and continued my journey. It was a strange experience, and I felt both vulnerable and in control at the same time.
Looking back, it seems that being aware of my vulnerability was an undercurrent to my newfound efforts at independence, and that awareness has in some ways continued to this day. Back then, I was just learning that I could take charge of my own affairs, and I have continued to learn how to do that even at times when I don’t feel strong. I know I can continue on with my journey, regardless.
Eventually, I was able to move out of Nancy and Keith’s place and into a bedsitter (rooming house apartment) of my own in Huddersfield. From there I completed my final year of college and got a divorce. In fact, Nancy helped with that, too. She presented herself at the hearing as a witness on my behalf by attesting to AR’s abusive nature. The decree nisi was issued in June 1973 and it states that AR “has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent.” Amen to that.
I don’t know when I lost contact with Nancy, but these memories make me regret letting such a good person disappear from my life. I hope that she has been successful and that she has been loved as she deserves to be. In case she happens to read this, I want to say thank you, Nancy Miller of Brighouse in Yorkshire. You made it possible for me to take a stand when I had no courage. Thanks to you, I have had a very good life.