By Jude Abbott:
I have no love for where I grew up. It was suburban and stifling, and it taught me nothing except I didn’t want to be there. I got out as soon as I could, legitimising my escape with good A level results. I had few criteria for my choice of University, except it had to be a long way from home and it had to be in a proper city.
I went to Leeds.
I lasted a couple of terms in student accommodation, but, like much of my University life, it was a disappointment. I didn’t understand the girls I lived among. I’d been imagining a cross between The Girls of Slender Means and Mallory Towers, but it was just dull. My flatmates were shallow yet poised, and appeared to be effortlessly navigating a path through this new territory, while I floundered, forever caught in the brambles of my own ineptitude.
In the final term of my first year. I moved into Autumn Street.
Autumn Street was the first place I felt was a home to me once I’d left the one I grew up in. Arriving in it was like breathing out - a long deep exhale. It was the shining jewel in the wasteland of my University life. I lived there for not much more than three months.
Between 1981 and 1984 (apart from a year’s reprieve in France, and a term at home when I had Hepatitis B - there’s two other stories right there) I lived within the same square mile of Leeds 6, and gave myself up to the heart of the student Shangri-la that revolved around The Royal Park pub and Maumomiat International Superstore. I lived in a series of houses that have subsequently blurred into one generic student house, with their fan heaters and filthy toilets. I trod water among an ebb and flow of people who had little in common except circumstance. Mostly I kept my eyes on the horizon and trudged dully onwards. My fellow students had lives that were unfathomable to me. They studied subjects I had never heard of, and they threw up with dismal regularity on a Sunday morning in the freezing bathrooms that always seemed to be next to my bedroom.
Autumn Street was where I found my family. Not the oppressive family I had been born into and couldn’t wait to escape from, but my chosen family. My people. My person. It was where I found Nancy. We were the sisters we had never had. Except we both had sisters.
It wasn’t the actual house. The house was just a back to back terrace in Hyde Park. The front door opened straight into the living room, which was painted an unlikely shade of brown. There was a tiny galley kitchen off to the left with stairs leading off behind a door. Single glazing. Rattly sash windows, stuffed with bits of rolled-up newspaper to soak up the condensation, and keep the warmth in. A curtain behind the front door. A gas fire. An immersion switch in the kitchen for when you wanted a bath. An Indian print throw covering the worst of the sofa.
It wasn’t a coup de foudre with Nancy. We only gradually became inseparable. We had found each other on the evening of my very first day at University - part of a loosely connected group of people who ended up back at Fat Nick’s in Woodhouse, after some sort of ghastly Freshers event in the Student Union Bar. In fact, we didn’t even see much of each other after that first meeting. We’d find each other drifting around the peripheries of the same political groups. Or we’d be brought together in a configuration that inevitably involved Fat Nick and the circle of people who orbited around him (he was a small time campus dealer). I got mushrooms from him, and once Nancy took acid with him and spent all night scrubbing his bath. I was drinking Gin and Tonic in the Student Union bar on my 19th birthday and Nancy gave me a Creme Egg.
Nothing can ever match the intensity of a friendship forged while you’re a clueless work in progress. People know me and Nancy as we we are now, but only we know what we were then. Nancy and I held hands while the chaos of our lives - the fuckings-up, the disappointments, the sudden beds - swirled around us. We were extraordinarily lucky that we had each other.
And Autumn Street was where it played out.
Of course, every dramatic set up needs its foil - the worldly and glamorous Gatsby figure who the narrator looks up to and who seems, at that point, to be the one who glitters and has it all. Our Gatsby was Lesley.
Perhaps Lesley is the centre of this story. Because without her, Nancy and I had no-one to measure ourselves against and be found wanting. Or maybe she had no influence at all on how we all turned out, but she was a a big part of how we thought about ourselves while we lived in Autumn Street.
While Nancy and I slept with unsuitable men in our chilly attic bedrooms - rarely out of real desire, and sometimes only so we would have a good anecdote to share afterwards - on the floor below us Lesley was embarked on a sexual odyssey that belonged to a universe whose laws we would never understand and where we would never gain admittance. Although of course we both did. But not until much later.
Nancy and I employed a rather scattergun approach to sex - if we did it enough then some of it would hit the target - but Lesley had intensely passionate relationships that we were all drawn into. Her affairs were all of our concerns. Which was why, after she’d dumped Kevin for his housemate Nick, it was Nancy and I who had to deal with him crying in our living room for hours. He came round most evenings and we didn’t really know what to do with him, and Lesley was too busy rolling around upstairs with Nick to care.
Lesley delighted in dropping discomfiting nuggets of information about her and Nick’s sex life into conversations with me and Nancy. This meant that we knew more about Nick than we needed to. He could, according to Lesley, make her come just by walking into the room (something I was more impressed by then than I am now), and he’d learned to masturbate by rubbing himself against the mattress rather than using his hands, and it was still what he preferred to do. For our part, Nancy and I embraced our roles. Turning round and saying, “Actually I’m not fucking interested” was not something we even contemplated. We were the housemates of the more glamorous Lesley, and we got to trail in her wake, mopping up the mess and absorbing some of the glamour of her life.
Today we teach girls to value themselves, and I wonder why that was a lesson I hadn’t learned by that point. Looking back at my lack of self-esteem at that time is painful. What also saddens me a little now, is that everything was so much about men - how they were, for us, still the means by which we validated ourselves. This was the eighties - feminism (and the Yorkshire Ripper) was all around us. We had badges. We knew women who had chosen political lesbianism as the only logical path to follow to escape the patriarchy. Our bodies were our own, we said, but we had so little self-regard that we offered them up indiscriminately to anyone who showed a flicker of interest. We were seeking affirmation from elsewhere, when all along there was something amazing right in front of us.
I make it sound miserable, but it wasn’t. Mainly it was fun - a small beam of sunshine that lit up the overriding dullness of those four years. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much before or since as I did then. We each had an ally. Whatever shit life threw at us, we dealt with it together. Nothing was so awful we couldn’t get a laugh out of it. There was even an element of daring each other to do our worst. Who could have the most humiliating sexual encounter? Who could be the most gormless around the people we sought to impress? I can argue there was an element of self-awareness in how we were for those few months in Autumn Street. That we were watching ourselves, knowing now was just a phase we had to get through, and life wouldn’t puzzle us for ever, and we wouldn’t always be hopeless, and this was probably as good as it was going to get for Lesley. I like to think we both knew our time would come.
Jude Abbott grew up in the suburbs of London. Following 16 years as an accidental pop star she now divides her time (unequally) between Berlin and West Yorkshire. Jude on Twitter.