Well, get her! Hair to shoulder, legs forever, precipitous platforms and a placard proclaiming Gay Liberation.
Of course, my hair was hennaed. Can’t tell from this picture. Black and white. Grey really, beneath the patina of soot. I give it a wipe, take a better look. And what a looker I was. Not that I could see it then. That jawline, that denim—looks like it’s been painted on. Must’ve been, what… seventy-one? No. Seventy-two. The first London Pride demonstration. When it was still a demonstration. When I was still a young man.
The honk of a horn disturbs my contemplation; these old eyes take their time adjusting: my long distance is shocking. Fortunately, this room is not a large one, and I have never been a size-queen.
Gladys—née Gareth—steps into focus, buttoning a salmon-pink blazer. ‘I’m going down.’ Not the first time she’s used that line, I’m certain. ‘Now, put that photograph back where it came from.’ Gladys has always liked to take control of a situation. Except in the bedroom. ‘And do make sure you’ve got everything—there’s no coming back if you forget something this time, Joan.’
She swooshes her scarf over shoulder, as if exiting some antique drawing room drama; I pull my face up as she pulls
the door shut, then put the photo back in the box where I
found it. She’s right, of course; I am forgetful these days. I’ve been known to leave the house without my keys, my dignity. And poor Gladys has picked up the pieces. So I shouldn’t bitch—she’s my last friend left. More cocks up her than she’s had hot dinners, but somehow it never got her. It got all the others.
Oh dear. I promised no tears. But it’s overwhelming, all of a sudden, all alone in this room. A room that’s been home half a lifetime—like me, long past its prime. Almost forty years, I have lived alongside this furniture. And the scenes it has seen! The men! The conflagrations.
Well, that was it for the housing association. Dozy mare—dosing off whilst partaking of marijuana nightcap. Caught one of the throws and up it went in smoke. I came to, thinking I was in Heaven, dry-ice swirling, and lay, waiting, for ‘Disco Inferno’ to kick in. But no, my clubbing days are done; it was only the neighbours calling 999 that saved this old gammon.
So now it’s been deemed I require around the clock attention. Previously there was a sporadic succession of thin-lipped women trained by Stalin. Making certain I was eating properly. Tying my shoelaces. Authority is never something to which I’ve responded positively—tell me to do anything, and I shall likely take an equal and opposite course of action. Got me thrown out of home at fifteen. It’s getting me thrown out again.
There’s the stairs. Footsteps, two pairs. Better pull myself together. As I always have done. When Michael died. And Martin. When I got arrested that time.
My slacks are cerulean, belt and braces tightened. My shirt, cerise chiffon—could use an iron. So too this saggy skin. I put on the best face I can, cap it with my bestest yolk-yellow bonnet. My appearance arrests in-track the disappointingly portly gentleman for whom Gladys holds the door open. I assay a curtsey as I greet him. ‘And you must be the porter, I presume?’
If he has a name, he doesn’t give one. Probably just as well as I would only have forgotten it by the time he’d taken one box and returned for the next. There are quite a number of them, piled and packed with what remains of my earthly possessions. They’ve been somewhat strict about volume and contents. Regulations I took some satisfaction in flouting. The inferno, though, has made editing easier. My name is Joan, and I am a hoarder. Comes from a childhood of going without, my dear. Imagine—seven of us in one rented accommodation! And this is before London’s East End became glittering. Now it’s all organic whatnots and shoes with no socks.
Thankfully, my footwear withstood the fiery flames—I favour a sensible flat, these days. Also withstanding, my prize possession—the record collection, sitting ready-to-porter. I can’t help thinking they might have sent someone dishier for my big closing number. Donkey-featured and -footed, he trudges in and out, out and in—Gladys flapping around him like she’s conducting. Likes to feel useful since she took the retirement, even offers to lift something. He fortuitously declines. At our great age, exertion must be undertaken with precaution. Pull something and you’ll be pushing up the daisies in no time.
Though Gladys is but a chicken—been a good decade since I took the retirement. ‘All ready, Joan?’
And then there was one. One old bag to be taken down. No, thank you, I do not need a hand. I shall take this curtain alone. Though I may take some time.
The building is even more ancient than I am—crumbling cornicing, busted banisters and, of course, no elevator. I swear they’ve added a stair for every year I’ve been here, and by the time I reach the bottom, I’m rasping like I climbed a mountain.
I rally and sally into Notting Hill sunshine.
It’s not always been home to the starlets and oligarchs; I blame Julia Roberts. When I moved in, W11 was one of the less desirable postcodes in town; then came that dreadful film. I expect the council will sell the flat for a tidy profit. Line their Tory pockets. No wonder they want me out of it.
On the street, Gladys is hand-wringing and a minibus is awaiting. Well, they might have sent the limousine. My boxes are all waiting within, and Mister Porter is huffing and puffing with his access ramp down. I don’t think so, darling. This queen ain’t going in the back of no bus yet: I opt for the passenger seat.
It’s somewhat further off the ground than I’d imagined. And it is something of a struggle to get the seatbelt fastened. But Gladys, dearest Gladys, comes to my assistance—lets her hand rest on mine a moment too long. I know something is coming. ‘Now, John…’
She cannot have called me by that name since about 1971; we were all feminising ourselves back then. Gareth became Gladys, John became Joan; we began experimenting with make-up and clothing. Most men moved on as glam gave way to disco then punk but, for me, it became a mission—my name and my appearance a card thrust into the world’s hand, proclaiming revolution. I was not neither one thing nor the other thing—I was everything at the same time. I was a man who chose to take a woman’s name. I was a man who chose to wear both masculine and feminine clothing, finding ludicrous the very notion that cloth cut and stitched in a certain fashion could somehow be ‘gendered’. It was my clothing, if I was wearing it. It was my name, if I was using it. That Gladys has chosen to name-peel—as only she has the privilege to do—can only signal she’s about to get real.
As the bus pulls off, I do not look back, lest I be turned into a pillar of salt. They might also have put more thought into my exit music. Mozart. Or Wagner, perhaps. Mister Driver is playing some nondescript thump-tchk thump-tchk. And just at this moment, I can’t find the strength to ask him to change it.
In these sorts of situations, there’s one thing that always makes me feel better. I flip down the overhead mirror. Oh dear. That mascara’s not as waterproof as the packaging promised. I have a damage-limitation dab at the corner of each eyelid, notice the nail polish is already chipped. Oh dear, oh dear. I reach into the handbag on my lap, pull out my Rouge Allure. Roll it up like a dog-dick.
Knuckles go white on the gear stick.
I’ve always enjoyed a scene. Making up on the bus. Making a fuss. As I make the pout, lips reddened, I catch the driver’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, staring. Let Operation Shock and Awe begin.