Notes from a Provincial Queer: Box rooms and air raid shelters

Originally published on Medium, 15 June 2020.

Slung back into the box room on a single bed, because that was the only spare place in my dad’s house, I found myself having strange dreams. I had moved away from Suffolk nearly twenty years earlier, from a working-class family, to build a life elsewhere as a gay man, thinking that being gay and happy meant being in a city. But after having an operation I retreated to Suffolk to convalesce. After a week it felt as though I had never left at all. The fields, the Co-op, the village pub — they were all still there. And although I was miles away from my friends, unable to hold them, the fields began to unfold older memories that I had locked away. My thoughts reached out like a fog across the fens, conjuring people I had all but forgotten.

It was the summer before our exam year and I was stuck in the village most of the time because dad, when he was not at work, was caring for mum whose MS was getting progressively worse. It limited the trips we could make and so I had to rely on my bike most days to get me around. A few times I went over to my friend Mike’s, whose family worked and lived in a small cottage on a farm; they were not the owners, just tenants on the land. Even in the 1990s there felt something positively eighteenth century about the landowning class in rural Suffolk.

Mike liked to play violent computer games, watch Manga films and shoot things. His house stank of dogs and body odour but his mother was a kindly mother-hen of a woman, who always made sure we were all right for food and cups of tea. It was while hanging out at the cottage that I became good friends with Dave and Nigel. Dave, I knew reasonably well because his mum sometimes cut my mum’s hair. He was into motor bikes and off-road car racing.

We used to play in the barns and the fields. One day Mike took out his father’s rifle and suggested we go shoot at targets that his father had painted onto the back of the barn. Before we got there, however, we came across a goose in one of the corn fields. Mike spotted its head jiving in and out of the corn. It was a massive bird, with a neck as thick as my arm. All four of us stood watching it, alive as anything, and yet I think all of us wanted to see Mike shoot it. Mike took his time positioning his gun and the bird seemed to pause and watch us. At first, I thought how stupid it was not to understand what was happening, but then I started to panic. I looked over to Dave, who smirked and made a gesture with his hand as though he was going to push Mike at the moment he tried to shoot. But then the sound of the gun rang out across the field. I looked back into the field but the goose was now just a mass of flesh, its wings painting its belly bright red with the blood that was trailing down from its neck. Dave kept repeating the word fuck, almost screaming, while I moved back away from the field. Mike and Nigel just watched in silence until the bird lurched forward and into one of the drains next to the barn. The sound of its wings smacking against the concrete sides of the drain as it tried to understand why it could not fly anymore. At that point Mike put it out of its misery and flung the body into a ditch so that his father would not find out. After that we went and swam in the farmer’s lake because it seemed pointless shooting targets now that we’d killed a bird.

I remember not being able to get the image of the dying bird out of my head. I kept thinking about its last moments in the drain and the sound of its wings. Dave could see I was distracted and so came over and started splashing water at me. I didn’t want him to do it either, he said. He kept on splashing me, so I did the same. We grappled with one another until we were in some awkward embrace and then, reaching around with his hand under the water, he felt my arse. I grabbed his dick and he said, I see, and then pushed me under the water.

Over the rest of that summer we became much closer and started hanging out almost every day. He was good friends with Nigel, who I had also been friends with when I was much younger because my dad and his dad worked at the same meat factory, which was one of the largest employers in the local area but Dave and I would give each other secret looks sometimes.

Nigel, Dave and I ended up going to the woodland behind our old primary school because it was a good place to smoke and light fires without being seen. I do not remember who initiated the discussion about sex, but it was on all of our minds because we were fifteen and raging with hormones. Somehow, we end up daring one another to suck each other off and so began my experience of sex. It was arousing, but I was also disgusted by the matter-of-fact approach. Nigel had this habit of sucking me for a couple of minutes and then spitting gob onto the ground. He was not concerned with my pleasure, only doing what was necessary for a return of the favour. I did not feel the same wave of desire for Nigel as I felt for Dave. He did not wash himself very often and was infamous among his group of friends for having nearly set fire to his house after trying to boil potatoes without any water.

With Dave things developed more complexly. In the weeks following, he invited me over to his place perhaps half a dozen times while his mum was working. His dad had been out of the picture for a long time and while his mum had a partner, he was never around and only lived with them some of the time. Dave was poorer than we were, in that his house was rented. I noticed that all the good furniture was in the living room, but there were parts of the house that were in need of work. There was a damp problem in the shower room and the bathroom cabinet had come off or been removed from the wall, but several of my friends’ homes were in some state of disrepair, so while it was something I noticed, it was not unusual. Dave’s room had an old wardrobe and a set of battered drawers with the fake veneer coming away at the edges but was typical of a lot of boys’ rooms in having posters of women like Gillian Anderson and the model Kelly Brook on the walls. I, too, had a poster of Kelly Brook, and I would often look at it and wonder why it did nothing for me.

When we went to his room, he put on straight porn tapes and showed me a biker magazine with a couple of half-naked women laying on bikers in completely impractical ways. I would feign a little interest. We would lie on his bed and he would usually initiate things with a have you heard about when someone does this to you… before explaining the sexual move. I would go along with the game. The fooling around very quickly escalated so that we did it a couple of times, after we worked out that lubricant (Johnson’s baby oil) was necessary if the experience was going to be enjoyable for both of us. Dave did not feel scared to talk about sexuality or what he liked and I asked him once what he thought he was and he replied: I reckon I’m bisexual. I just like sex a lot. The second statement was a sort of step back from his first remark in which he had openly defined himself as not straight. This was 1997 and still before the watershed moment of Queer as Folk, and it filled me with joy that Dave described himself as bisexual. Much of the queer fiction I would read twenty years later would be filled with working-class men who had sex with other men, but would never define themselves as anything other than straight. In those few secretive weeks together, there were moments when we would just lie together, holding or stroking each other and talk. That was one of the most shocking elements for me: being naked with another male body while we talked about school, other friends, and what we were going to do when we were older. This was what intimacy meant, I thought, but Dave was careful not to let things develop too much, often undermining moments of tenderness by talking about this girl with whom he had been in an off-and-on relationship and insisting that we did not kiss with tongues.

The countryside felt like a straight space because I didn’t know other gay people; I didn’t hear about the rural queer lives back in those days. But they were there, as I would discover years later. Instead, Dave and I made our own space. One time, we went out along the fields and along the edge of a copse until we came to an old raid shelter. We both looked at each other, having the same idea. I can still recall the pain from the sticks and foliage as I laid on the ground, looking up at the rust-stained roof. I liked the danger of having sex in a space that, although secluded, was not private. It was used by locals, and a public footpath passed close by. We were effectively trespassing, but it felt good to be taking possession of the space. And afterwards, we sat watching the evening arrive, talking about nothing and listening to the low hoot of the wood pigeons. In recent weeks I have learned to reconnect with my rural roots, and to see them as an integral part of my sexual awakening. Those experiences in the wood and the air raid shelter were the first times when I began to think it might be possible to have relationships with men.