Trying to lose one's maidenhead, when all about you are losing theirs, becomes more complicated than anticipated. An extract from A Young Lady's Miscellany, the humorous memoir of a fraught adolescence
I had decided, quite spontaneously, to blow a large portion of my sparse government college allowance on a train fare to Southampton at the other end of the country to end my virgin status.
A month prior to this decision, a letter had somehow found its way into my pigeon hole with a very sketchy address on the envelope and an orotund opening that ran: Mayhap this letter will never reach you as your college address is unbeknown to me. However, if it does, hello. It is I, Marcus, writing to you, for some obscure reason.
In a thinly veiled plea for me to become his girlfriend instead of asking me outright, he mentioned in passing that he was no longer engaged, followed by a description of what sounded to me at the time like a highly inviting room: I am living in the former Palace of the Bishop of Southampton, a Gothic building. My room has three pointed arch windows with leaded glass panes. I also live next to a bar (A great boon!). I responded by dashing off a short, non-committal postcard which could still be construed as representing a smidgen of interest.
This was enough, however, to put Marcus into overdrive and a long letter appeared in my pigeon hole a few days later. Again, there was a description of his room, this time in minute detail, as if he wanted me to envisage standing within it: Your postcard now has pride of place on my bookcase, along with a Victorian picture of an angel, some lovely images of Our Lady, two postcards of ploughs, Millais’s The Death of Ophelia and Burne-Jones’s The Mirror of Venus. My room presently has books and papers scattered everywhere, old Spectators, Private Eyes, Telegraph supplements. On my desk, I have a large rosary, a medallion of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, a pile of antiquarian books, a photo of a beautiful Edwardian actress in an Art Nouveau frame and an antique magnifying glass.
He certainly knew how to read his audience because I dashed off a lengthy reply, followed soon after by a black and white photograph of myself draped gothically over an old gravestone. No message, just his name and address on the back. One of Marcus’s fellow students had brought in the post at breakfast and they took to ribbing him about his eccentric girlfriend with the ‘crazed handwriting’.
Thereafter, a steady stream of letters passed between us with him admonishing me for penny-pinching by using slower second class postage. Our correspondence, both vain and inane, babbled on, mainly about Victoriana such as the ghosts haunting our respective campuses and our atavistic sartorial sense, including, I see looking back at his letters, his collection of cravats...six are paisley and one is bright yellow.
I often included a herbal tea bag in my envelopes, proffering a salve in response to his frequent descriptions of his drinking binges, which resembled those of twits at Oxbridge in early twentieth century novels, except that the cost of Marcus’s were being borne by the taxpayer, rather than his own family: I’ve been outrageously drunk every night for the past two weeks due to a bout of depression, or better still, Last week in our local pub, which is Irish, we had a massive food fight with Ploughman’s lunches and the topper, On Friday night we got legless yet again and someone took photos of my friend Jim and I having a wee over the bicycle sheds, but enough of these sordid details. He hadn't yet, like Bertie Wooster, stolen a policeman's helmet, but he was certainly having a rollicking time down there compared to me, leading the convent life at the Junior Women’s Institute, North Yorks. Chapter. The tone of his letters soon intensified: I must see you soon, otherwise I’ll turn into some kind of lemon meringue and Send me yourself in a large parcel so I can take little nibbles out of you whenever I feel like it, which reminded me of a curious dream I’d had featuring Margaret the Christian.
As my Religious Studies teacher Miss Plumpton had wisely said in my first year at secondary school, we go on all kinds of journeys...journeys to get chips, journeys from one parent to the other, journeys to a grandmother who warms up our hands, but this penile pilgrimage was making me increasingly unsettled the further I chugged down the country. I soldiered on, considering it a rite of passage, a cumming of age in which I would emerge on the other side as a fully-fledged adult, a miraculous transformation.
In days gone by, my misadventure might’ve been retold as ‘The Credulous Virgin’, narrated from the point of view of a clergyman who had heard the tale of the aforementioned virgin: ‘There are an infinite number of coxcombs, who endeavour by seductive stratagems to captivate the hearts of unworldly girls’.
When I finally arrived, after many hours on the rails, it had become dark. The train had emptied out and I was the only one alighting at Southampton in a long, black wool coat, appropriately double-breasted, topped by a sage green cloche hat. With my little antique leather suitcase in hand, I must have looked like a ghost from the past. Marcus emerged from the shadows, looking as nervous as I was, though probably for different reasons. My main feeling upon seeing him was relief because, if he’d been on one of his drinking binges and had forgotten I was coming down, I definitely would not have had the money for a hotel.
When we arrived at the old Bishop’s Palace, the drinking was already in full swing in the bar next door to his room. No girls were there and it was as if the twelve or so ex-public-school boys had been anticipating my arrival for the last few hours. When I appeared, a couple of them jumped up to take my hat and coat. They invited me to sit in the middle of a large leather Chesterfield and jostled each other to get places next to me. I then held them captive as I chronicled the tedium of my journey down, with the highlights of changing trains at Crewe and then again at Swindon, where I had bought a most disheartening cheese and pickle sandwich. Marcus, all the while, sat on a wooden stool to the side, regarding the scene smugly, clearly satisfied by the others’ adoration of this Pre-Raphaelite model who was all his.
Being insular southerners, they wanted to hear all about my hometown of Whitehaven in the uncivilized north, the old men in trenchcoats with their greyhounds, my uncle Jim bashing his engagement ring on the pavement with a hammer, the girls who brutalized me at Richmond School, including renditions of their Cumbrian accents. Under the guise of feeling sorry for me, I received drinks, kisses and hugs. One of them invited me to try his beer then made a point of drinking from exactly where my lips had been on the rim. Marcus would periodically pipe up with ‘Hey, lads, lay off my girlfriend!’, but he was becoming more and more slurred and didn’t notice that I was getting on with one of his friends far better than the others, who’d now moved to sit next to me on the couch.
I don’t know what it was about Tristram as he was dressed in a lurid Hawaiian shirt and quite ordinary looking. Maybe he gave off some alluring odour, or maybe I’d just had too much alcohol, but I was soon smitten by him. I could feel my pupils pulse into maximum dilation when I looked at him so there was no hiding my feelings. It didn’t immediately occur to me that it was odd that I’d come down to see Marcus and was instead captivated by his friend.
After being their impromptu guest speaker for a couple of hours, Tristram gestured to me and I jumped up and trotted off with him. He muttered to the others something about ‘showing her the Bishop’s altar around the corner’. We didn’t quite make it to the altar as there was a conveniently situated broom cupboard en route, which he probably knew about. This served as the setting for the best kissing I’d done up to that point, but the alcohol may have been a factor in determining this.
We returned to the bar ten minutes later, after it suddenly dawned on me in the cupboard that I was perhaps being a tad unfair to Marcus. When we returned, Marcus dived into the space next to me on the Chesterfield before Tristram and laid his claim, drunkenly slinging his arm around me. The room then started to peter out, Tristram lingering until the very end, when he realised that I was too loyal and there was no hope for him that night. Finally alone, Marcus and I ambled off to his room.
Southampton was a renowned university so, as at Oxbridge in those days, they did not believe in providing adequate heating in students’ rooms. Marcus did indeed have three picturesque high Gothic windows in his room but these were not double-glazed and the only heat source came from a tiny example of one of those old, curly cast iron radiators that resemble the fossilized rib cages of lesser dinosaurs. I crouched next to this, feeling much the worse for wear after my ‘drinking sesh’, as he called it. Marcus, looking whey-coloured, stood swaying next to the desk, almost knocking off his pipe rack as he attempted to hold forth. Eventually, I rose and brushed my teeth, whereupon we attempted to become amorous beneath his woefully inadequate sheet and moth-eaten tartan blanket.
‘How on earth can you sleep in such a freezing room?’ I asked, ‘Is that why you drink every evening, so that you’re numbed to the cold?’
‘It’s you who is cold, I’m as warm as toast,’ he replied petulantly.
After a time, however, my stove was somewhat primed but it didn’t help that he used gratingly laddish phrases such as, ‘Come on, get the wombles out then,’ which surprised me as he’d previously been so erudite. Things did not go to plan, however, as he could not, for the life of him, put on the condom. The thing just kept twanging up into the air like an elastic band. I couldn’t help him as I’d had no previous experience of this myself. Marcus grappled around for the instructions on the box but he’d flamboyantly tossed it away when he’d opened it and I thought I’d seen it disappear behind the wardrobe. Eventually his futile attempts became funny, for me at least and, drunkenly giving up, we went to sleep.
I awoke at dawn with a monstrous hangover and him monstrously surly. By mid-morning, I had decided he was an utter ass and that I was going to leave. He wanted to show me The Red Lion, the oldest pub in Southampton before I went for my train and, as he had no money on him, I bought us lunch.
On my return to halls on Sunday night, Elspeth asked ‘Did you do the sex thing then?’
‘No, I think I am cursed to die a virgin.’
‘Well join the club!’ she exclaimed, ‘But I’m happy about it. I don’t want some bloke squirming around in my bed, much less in my you know what...!’
All Elspeth wanted was to be home with her elderly parents, sitting by the Aga in the farm kitchen with a glass of milk fresh from the teat. Perhaps I’d have wanted that too, if I’d had parents like hers...but I hadn’t and, reflecting upon the self-imposed limitations of the sheltered life that awaited her, I was glad I wasn’t in her shoes.
On going to the cash dispenser the next morning, the letters OD jumped out at me on the screen. I asked Jenny what that meant, offering ‘Oh Dear’? as a hypothesis.
‘It’s figuratively an ‘Oh dear’, but more literally means overdrawn,’ she explained, then told me to go into the bank and grovel. My senseless odyssey to the south had left me high and dry in more ways than one.
The bank manager had a sharp suit and a manicured pencil moustache. He asked me to accompany him into a tiny conference room, pulled out a packet of cigarettes and asked if I minded if he had ‘one of these’. He didn’t wait for an answer before lighting up. He told me I’d been a ‘very, very naughty girl’ and the bank would, on this occasion only, give me a loan of three hundred pounds to be paid back within the next six months or there would be consequences in the form of high interest payments. I left the little office with reddened, watery eyes. Jenny was irate as she thought he’d made me cry, but it had been nothing of the sort: it was the stinging cigarette smoke that did it.
Auriel Roe is an editor of memoirist.org, the home for high quality literary memoir writing. Her debut novel Blindefellows was Amazon #1 in humour. It has been translated into Spanish and Italian and is also an audiobook. Her humorous memoir of a troubled adolescence A Young Lady's Miscellany is now available from Amazon and bookshops. Auriel created the Jane Goodall eightieth birthday portrait and is a Royal Academy shortlisted artist.
Author website: www.aurielroe.com