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Abbey Chicken

A Self-Portrait

Finding Myself

Inside my bag is my entire world.  Look inside any woman’s bag and it will be full of signs – the things that are most important.  Things that cannot be replaced. The bag itself is a rucksack, blue, cream, black. Jansport. A present from my brother for my 20th birthday. Tucked into one of the loops is a soft red dragon named Splott. He was our mascot in the Commonwealth Games last year, taped to the bow of the boat. Along the zip on the other side are a collection of badges. I am 6.  I don’t even think straight. I’m a fox. Pleasure or pain? A red one with a figure 8 on it, from the Modern Art Museum. Pitt Rivers. Masterpiece. And a multicoloured striped ribbon, fastened with a gold pin to the zip. The badges are, in some way, an ironic extreme of who I actually am. The mix of seeming very sexualised and actually being much too scared of it, feeling way out of my depth and too young for all of that, of supreme arrogance and behind the façade, complete uncertainty and insecurity. I get accused of being aggressive and competitive, usually in a way that has been beneficial, realised in some kind of ambition. And then there’s the part of me that is fascinated by museums, casting about for inspiration anywhere I can and loving the visual impact of things – photography, sculpture, catwalk shows, theatre, film and masquerade. I have been to every gallery and museum in Oxford over and over again, finding new things, enjoying the cool silence and musty smell. Libraries hold the same appeal, the sight of a shelf of dusty antique leather bound books almost more exciting than their not-so-dusty contents. Each badge is, in it’s own way, a statement on view to the world, an insight into myself.

Virtually none of the stuff I carry around with me is essential. It has my wallet, phone, keys, a pen, all the usual stuff to get me through the day. But the rest is essential – essentially me anyway.  A red leather book with thick creamy pages.  Empty. Helen gave me the book to write in, but it seems too expensive for my 35mm daydreams. But I carry it, meaning to use it. A sleek silver fountain pen, and many bits of paper with words and names scrawled on, stolen to populate the books I plan to write. A tube of lipgloss, pale and sparkly and a catwalk magazine that came free with Vogue magazine. And now I wonder if all these things can be seen as indicators of who I am? I am sitting in a bookshop café, rooting through my bag trying to find myself.

My diary is another gift from Helen – an Andreas Bitesnich photo diary. I use it to write -the what-I-need-to-do-when stuff rather than pouring my heart into it. I don’t seem to do that somehow.  I think maybe I should because there are moments when I wish I could burst a bubble of memory, remember something more clearly, but it doesn’t seem to happen.  I wish I had a diary of the  past 2 years, the ones which ostensibly have changed me most. But I don’t write about me. And writing this now is one of the hardest things I have done, not least because I know myself too well. Putting a conversation onto a printed page makes it a statement held up to challenge and things that might be true on some level need to be qualified or rephrased to make them a more accurate representation. I contradict myself. I bore myself. That’s not to say that I think I am boring, but that I sink into a self consciousness that borders on self obsession, an introspection that can only be philosophically depressing. After many false starts, I’m starting all over again to try to conceptualise myself in words, aware all the time of the fact that, if I’m honest, I have no desire at all to turn myself inside out. It becomes a kind of distorted voyeurism, trying to second guess the impression people will get reading me. And to make sense of it all, I turn outwards, to find myself in my bag, or, as is increasingly apparent, through other people. Starting with my girl.

Crazy in Love

I came to university from school, first time living away from home, and I fell in love.  I was studying English Literature.  We met in Freshers’ Week – she was doing the same course and we clicked from the very beginning. At times like that you cling to the people you meet first, but after a couple of weeks, as the friends I had walked into on the very first day drifted into different groups, we grew stronger. We spent all our time together, exploring the city, revelling in our new freedom, going out, staying up whole nights with a bottle of wine, talking. Helen was so completely unlike most of my friends. She seemed wealthy, intimidatingly smart and we were intrigued by each other’s insecurities and issues, getting to know one another at our most vulnerable. She thought she was ugly. Not just thought, but truly believed, to the point where she would smash mirrors and collapse in tears, surrounded by shards of broken glass. 7 years bad luck, 7 years bad luck. I wondered if they cancelled each other out. I couldn’t understand how she could see herself in this way, but then, she couldn’t comprehend how I could acknowledge that I wasn’t fat but simultaneously diet all the time. I spent days trying to make her see herself through my eyes. I thought she was beautiful – dark, pouty, petite, sexy. Without realising it at the time, I flirted shamelessly. And looking back, I think she did too. Either way, there was something between us, something more than friendship. I know that I pursued it, and for a long time I thought it was only me pushing. But looking back, I don’t think that it could have happened that way. I was fighting my own doubts as well as hers. Neither of us before had considered the possibility of being gay, but suddenly things were looking that way. She refused to admit it, denied that it was any more than healthy experimentation, and so we carried on, expecting it to end, never wanting it to.  I came to terms with it more easily than she did, and so I pretended that nothing was going on to all of my friends because she wanted me to. When faced with the alternative, ending it, I could not let go. Without noticing, I had fallen in love with a woman.

I guess you could say she was and still is the biggest influence on my life. She changed the way I look at things, she is the first person I turn to when anything happens, good or bad. We’ve been through our own dramas, but 2 years on we are still going strong. But it hasn’t always been like this. We argued incessantly, broke up repeatedly and could not give it up. Then, after a row, I agreed to meet a guy for dinner who thought I was single. I never realised then how alone she felt, how insecure and betrayed I was making her because I thought that she wanted me to act like I was single, and felt so hurt by her refusal to publicly acknowledge what we were. I told him I wasn’t single, but still saw him, only stopping when she asked me to. He cried for two hours when I told him. A week later I found them in bed together. That makes it sound more melodramatic than it was; I had agreed to stay friends with him and we ended up going to a club where she would be, one evening. They seemed to get on, but I couldn’t believe for a second that anything would happen between them. I bit down on the jealousy that surged through me as I watched them dance, but when they left together it felt like someone was twisting a knife in my gut. All night I looked for them. At sunrise, I walked into his room and saw her, my goddess, sitting on his lap, topless. The slow motion image is so vivid, the golden morning light illuminating her body. I trashed the room, screamed and in a split second was gone, running until my lungs burned and legs shook. For the next month, we hardly saw each other, and when we did it was to exchange insults. She told me she needed a guy, that she was straight. I left for the summer, heartbroken. I tried to pack my time as full as possible, to simply not think about her. We had already arranged to live in the same building in our third year and so I had to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t want me.  I trained full time, went to the Commonwealth Games with the Welsh Squad and finally went to Morocco for a month. I always find that travelling clears your head, and seeing the beauty and poverty and power of Morocco changed my priorities. Something seemed to make sense in a way it hadn’t before, and when I went back to university I was no longer dreading seeing her again. I held her at arm’s length and was civil, but for the most part, I avoided her. We had been best friends from the beginning, and discovering an Oxford that didn’t involve her was new and strange, but I refused to be tied to her. One evening I went to a club with friends and met a girl, Louise, who was in the year below me at college. We hit it off and started seeing each other. Superficially at least, Helen seemed pleased for me. I can admit now that I probably ignored the signs that it was hurting her, even took a secret pleasure in them. I was bitter and determined not to let her get to me again. The first night I brought Louise home, Helen tried to kill herself. I moved out, forcing myself to ignore the guilt I was feeling, but things faded with Louise anyway and, with exams approaching I decided it was time to focus on more important things. I started to talk to one of my tutors about everything.  I had never really talked about myself so openly before, but Emma and I clicked and she helped me think differently about everything that was going on. She helped me face myself a great deal and somehow come to terms with the soap opera that my life was becoming. She is still one of the best friends I have.

Helen told me that she had been looking for an opportunity to tell me that over the summer she had realised and come to terms with the fact that she was probably gay and wanted to be with me, but I never gave her the chance. I decided I still did not want to be with anyone until after my exams, but we drifted together anyway, inevitably. I can’t imagine my life without her. The sexiest, cutest and best – that’s what she says we are. Sometimes I agree. We fit, physically, emotionally, we complement each other.

She has made me see myself differently in a way I hope I have repaid. The nightmares have stopped now, possibly because my insecurities and fears are cushioned by her support.  In a short time, we have discussed everything – her concerns about being gay, her family’s reaction to that, my issues with my weight, men and my parents and the clarity and understanding between us that talking has achieved is the ultimate reassurance.

Nightmares

Everyone has their own issues. I don’t think I have a phobia. I’m not scared of the dark, of spiders or snakes, or heights or foreign people. My nightmares are indefinable. Usually about me being very very small in the face of a huge machine that hums menacingly. Scary stuff. More recently though, they have been much more gory, rivers turning to blood, rooms spattered with blood, never violent but vampirically sanguine. I would wake alone in cold sweats, shaking. I never get them when Helen is there. But I don’t know if these nightmares are an indication of anything deeper. Sometimes I think I am most scared of myself, some force that is kept in check that I don’t want to dream about. Though I never thought I was gay, sleeping with women is part of that retaining control. I have had bad experiences with men, to the point where I see sex with men as somehow degrading, a rising shame from deep within.  I panic when I am not completely sure that I cannot be overpowered and sex becomes a power struggle rather than any kind of shared intimacy. I guess that that is what sex is about, and with Helen I could let go in a way that I had never found possible. I lost my self consciousness that usually made me freeze. The food thing has been there a long time; I started coxing when I was 15, in a school rowing club. I have a severely competitive edge, and seeing as I could not make up in experience, the only way to the top that I could see was to get lighter than the other coxes, not the healthiest attitude to food for a 15 year old girl to develop. It didn’t work, of course. But it carried on. I kept coxing until last year, when I coxed Osiris in the university boat race, beating Blondie (the Cambridge women’s reserve crew) and the Welsh men in the Commonwealth Games. We lost. The most humiliating race of my life. I don’t enjoy it so much at the top. I get an equal buzz from racing in smaller regattas with friends as I did at an international level, but the pressure is dramatically less. I spent a year training twice a day, cycling 7 miles to the river at 5.30am to cox, coming back to the library and lectures then heading to the gym to supervise the weightlifting sessions, the erg sessions, to count laps of the running track and time body circuits. And all the way through, I ate as little as possible. Training before dawn in winter is cold enough for a cox, but having to reduce your body fat as much as possible is even less fun. At the time, it was the way I could contribute a physical effort for my crew, and so I stuck with the challenge. In fact, it was an excuse to not eat, making me feel justified in being alarmingly thin. Dieting every moment isn’t something I feel the need to do anymore, even if I do still have occasional bouts of guilt. I used to read cookery books like porn, furtively flicking through the glossy pages fantasising about something I couldn’t have. It means I’m not a bad cook, and I still love food magazines, but I don’t read them as hungrily as I did.

Things have changed a lot. While I was studying, I had no inclination to read or write anything that wasn’t directly relevant to my course. The moment I finished, I celebrated for a week, slept lots and then devoured as many books as I could get my hands on before starting my summer job. My personal bible is a book called Perfume. I find that smell is one of the senses that brings back memories most vividly, and when I miss Helen, her perfume is the thing that instantly brings her back to me. Sometimes I can walk down a street and catch a wave of some scent that will transport me to a different place, a different time. The smell of my grandfather’s flat, before he moved. The smell of a teacher’s perfume combined with chalk and rubber that places me instantly in a small stuffy French classroom, copying verb tables. I wander Oxford at times I want to be alone for the sights and sounds, but also often for the smell. The river at dawn, the sap running in the trees as the leaves brush the water is the smell that is most familiar to me, from years of getting to know the river inside out. I love watching the clouds as they hang low, swirling over the surface on a cold morning, or the river as it changes colour with the weather and the sky, geese skimming along the banks. That is not to say I am a big fan of geese. They might be pretty, but they’re vicious as hell. One of those obligatory amusing stories that my parents tell when I bring friends home is how I, as a tot, was feeding ducks when a goose tried to steal some of my picnic. I was so scared that I stuck out a hand, gripped it by the neck and picked it up, squealing at my father (who was crying with laughter) ‘It’s not funny, it’s got TEETH!’ I maintain that it was probably the best reaction and to a 5 year old faced with a bird taller than it, a serrated and hissing beak is quite intimidating. Anyway, back to smells:  I like to wander through the indoor market or the farmers’ market on Gloucester Green, taking in the fish and cheese and meat and warm bread and people. The people of Oxford, all going about their own individual worlds, all oblivious to the other microcosms around them. I people watch in bookshop cafes, the window of G&Ds onto St Aldates, from the top of the Anglo Saxon tower. And sometimes I write about them..

And this is my life, as it is at this moment. In a year, a month, even a week, it may not be me anymore. But right now it is as close as I can get. I have just finished my undergraduate degree at Oxford University. I got a 2.1. The world, so I’m told, is my shellfish of choice. Unfortunately, I hate seafood. I have very little idea as to what I want to do with my life except write. And sure, that can be an ambition in itself, a career path. But, as I am also constantly reminded, it takes years before you make it big, you need a ‘proper’ job to support yourself. I don’t have any huge desire to make a lot of money. I would like to be in a position where, if I decide that I want to go to the theatre one evening, I can and I don’t have to worry about it. Or, if I want to take my girlfriend away for a weekend, it doesn’t break the bank. But beyond that, right now, I would be happy living out of a backpack. Which is entirely what I intend to spend the next year doing.  I have no ties, no mortgage, no job, no bills to pay except the oppressive student loan and I want to see the world. Even that isn’t organised yet, despite the fact that in my head I am planning to go sometime in October, only 2 months away. I have a lot of friends going to Australia, I have been invited to a wedding in India in January, I have a huge desire to see Cambodia and Thailand and I am interested in working for a charity doing aid work in Africa. As you can see, nothing is organised. And as far as money is concerned, I hope to be able to find work to pay for all this while I am away. My mum is desperate for me to find a job to come back to. I think this is because she doesn’t think I will come back if I don’t have that. For the short term future, that may well be true. If I hit on some ingenious method of travelling around the world and getting paid for it, I will be away for as long as I can take it. But I know that eventually I will come back. I love Britain too much to settle permanently anywhere else. My parents live on the border between Wales and Gloucestershire, near the Wye Valley. In Autumn, it is paradise on earth. The mulchy smell of fallen leaves, fermenting apples and rain, the tapestry of colours as the trees turn over the swollen brown ribbon of a river as it winds past Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle – these are the sights and smells that make me feel at home. I don’t really have any bright ideas for a glittering career yet though.

As a kid, I always wanted to be an archaeologist. I used to dig in the sand for things my granddad or dad buried for me to find. Then there was the obligatory desire to be an actress. At one point I even considered forensic science, but English was always my subject. While Archaeology and Anthropology appealed as a degree subject, I’ve been told I’m all about words. I considered coming back to university to do a Masters in Renaissance Drama, but academia is not a path I really want to follow. Ideally I’d like to combine travelling and writing, using Britain as a base when I need somewhere to call home. I find it difficult to not have anywhere that is just my own space – somewhere to keep my books, pictures, and all the hoards of stuff I have accumulated over the years that I am not ready to get rid of yet, photos and letters.

Who knows what will happen over the next year? I might grow up (doubtful), I might meet the right man and become straight (I think my mother hopes this, but even more doubtful), I might go abroad and never come back or I might hit on my ideal career. Can’t wait.