31/05/2016 by paulinebsc
Auntie Jenny and Uncle Ted weren’t related to Mum and Dad, they were just friends, but I was brought up to call the ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’ because in those days calling an adult by their first name wasn’t polite. They lived in the apartment across the hall from us, but we may as well all have lived in the same house. Saturdays I would trail behind them to the shops, thinking my own thoughts as they gossiped, walking hand in hand. It was unusual in those days, but to me it was just what they did, and had no significance. If I had been good during the week I would be allowed to choose a Dinky car or a toy Dalek from the display in Turners Tremendous Toys, then on the way back we would stop in the park. The two of them never stopped talking; it was like accompanying two squawking parrots.
Then we would return to one of the flats for tea. Sometimes this was our flat, sometimes Auntie Jenny’s. It didn’t make much difference. I had toy boxes in both flats, and since I wasn’t a bad child I often had a new toy to play with. After tea the flat would get all masculine as the men returned full of sports news. In winter they would either have been to Fratton Park or watched the match in the local pub. In summer it was cricket they would talk about. The women usually disappeared to clean the bedroom to escape what bored them. At least that was what they told me. If we were in my house we would end up in my bedroom while the two men played on ‘my’ elaborate train and Scalextric set-up. If I was lucky they would let me change the points. If we were in Auntie Jenny’s house then we would get Lego all over the floor, building space ships or robots. Once we built a rocket higher than me. That took three weeks and was the best looking thing I ever made. I still have a photograph of me standing beside it that Uncle Ted took. The only trouble with Lego was the number of small pieces that ended up all over the floor. The two men were forever having to rub each other’s knees when one of them had knelt on a piece, or their bottoms if they had sat on one.
When it was my bedtime and I had cleaned my teeth, said my prayers and been read to by one of the grown-ups in my life I would hear them separate. Sometimes the men would stay in our flat to watch the match again when ‘Match of the Day’ came on, sometimes the women would stay to watch a film, or a comedy program and I would hear them laughing. To me there was nothing strange about finding Uncle Ted in his pyjamas cleaning his teeth in the morning, or Auntie Jenny putting strange cream all over her face before breakfast. It was just life as it was, children do that. Accept the unusual because they don’t know any different.
I was shocked, surprised and deeply hurt when David Custon stopped me in the playground and shouted at me:
‘Your dad’s a nancy.’
I had no idea what he meant, and I still don’t know what made him think that, but I was a studious little boy and tried to find out what he meant.
This was before the internet. My only sources of information were the school library or the public library. They weren’t helpful. I found a few things mentioning ‘Nancy:’
Nancy Mitford was a writer, but they weren’t my sort of books.
Nancy Astor had been a politician until her death a few years ago.
Nancy was a place in France.
I was distracted for a while as I read one of the ‘Nancy Drew’ books, but none of these were anything to do with my father. David had been trying to insult Dad by calling him a ‘Nancy,’ I knew that, but none of these could be used as an insult. I was no clearer in my mind.
I didn’t want to hurt Dad by insulting him, so I decided to question Uncle Ted next time he read to me.
‘Uncle Ted, what’s a Nancy?’ I asked, all innocence.
He looked shocked for a minute, then his face cleared.
‘Where did you hear that, Jeffery?’
‘David at school says the Dad is one. I couldn’t find anything in the library to help.’
Uncle Ted looked as if he was trying not to laugh at me.
‘I’m not surprised. A nancy is a man who likes another man very much.’
‘Like you and Daddy do?’
‘Yeah, I guess so.’
‘Then why did David make it sound horrible.’
‘A lot of people don’t understand that sort of thing Jeffery. Just ignore David and people like him.’
It is difficult to say whether my parents become more open about their love then, or whether it was simply that I noticed it more once it had been discussed. I never saw anything sexual happen, but the kissing and feeling was more obvious to me. As far as I could tell their interactions were no different to that of most of my friend’s parents, just sometimes it was between members of the same sex.
David wasn’t the only one who was abusive over the rest of my schooldays, but I soon found that ignoring the comments was best. Retaliating tended to lead to violence. Keeping calm left them blustering helplessly.
By the time I left school attitudes had started to change. It was gradual but there. Bringing girlfriends home was a risk. My parents (all four of them!) tried to keep their relationships low-key when anyone else was present, but they all slipped from time to time. Some girls left in a hurry. I don’t think I would have gone very far with those ones anyway. Of the rest some kept quiet, others wanted to talk about it, constantly asking questions about the ‘queer life style.’
Gillian was one of the quiet ones. When we had started dating seriously I managed to get her alone in my room when all the ladies were in the other flat and the men out watching an evening match. She was as eager to go further as I was. Afterwards she questioned me about my parents. She asked because she wanted to know, and her questions were calm and sensible. We married not long afterwards, and are still happily together, apart from the rows and arguments suffered by most loving partnerships.
Both my mother and Aunt Jenny developed health problems when they reached their sixties. My mother was devastated by Aunt Jenny’s death, and suffered a stroke not much later which she did not survive. Uncle Ted and Dad moved into one of the flats and sold the other. As the concept of homosexuality became more acceptable in society they stopped trying to hide from others and became entrenched as regulars in the nearest gay bar to home.
‘We’re thinking of getting married. What do you two think?’ Uncle Ted asked me.
‘That’s marvellous!’ Gillian shouted her joy. ‘It’s about time you made honest men of each other.’
‘Are you sure, Dad, Uncle Ted?’ I asked. ‘You’ve been together for such a long time, marriage seems an unnecessary step.’
‘Stop being so sensible,’ Gillian scolded. ‘If they want to show the world their love at last, let them.’
Being a sensible husband I bowed to her superior sensibilities and congratulated them.
‘It’s just a shame Jenny and your mum won’t see it.’
‘I bet they’re in heaven cheering.’ Gillian gushed.
I had wondered all my life, now seemed like the time to ask.
‘If you and Ted were a couple and Mum and Jenny were a couple, how did I come along?’
Dad blushed. I had never seen that happen before.
‘You’ve read pornography, I bet.’
I nodded, embarrassed.
‘Well, foursomes weren’t invented in this generation, they happened then too. I was horrendously drunk and aimed for your Uncle Ted. I missed. When your mum’s pregnancy started to show, I had to marry her, that’s how things were in those days, but I still wanted to be with Ted and she knew it. Jenny only pretended to be with me to keep our families happy. She looked after your mum when she was pregnant, while pretending to be Ted’s wife.’ He grinned, and looked at me. ‘We were all very, very drunk. I often think you look more like your uncle Ted than you look like me.’
I hope he was teasing. My dad doesn’t joke a lot, so it’s difficult to be sure. He looked embarrassed so I grinned.
‘Having two dads or two mums is getting quite fashionable these days. This is probably the first time I have been ahead of fashion.’
‘And you had both at the same time.’
I hugged him.
‘I sure did, and I had a happier childhood than many.’
Neither of us had ever suffered from hay-fever before, but we both had damp eyes from the flowers Gillian had put in the vase we were standing by.