Friday, 29 January 2010

First love with a Zulu warrior (from Birmingham)

What does Leicester mean to you?  Now there’s a question you weren’t expecting.  Unless you’re an East Midlander, the answer is probably; not very much.

To me, though, it conjures up ancient images of a smiley, fit, young, black man, baby-oiled skin all of a-glisten, dressed as a schoolboy, Zulu warrior or leather freak.

Leicester is on my mind today because I’m on a train heading there.  As you may know from previous blogs, I’m between full-time jobs and so am gigging around the radio and TV stations of the land.  There’s a chance of some presentation shifts at BBC Radio Leicester, so I’m doing a Norman Tebbit and getting on my bike or, at least, getting on the 09.25 East Midlands Trains service from St Pancras.

But why the delightful mental imagines of the dusky, kinkily-attired hottie?  Well, he was my first love 30 years ago and, as The Walker Brothers so wisely told us, ‘first love never, ever dies’.

Actually, that’s not quite true; he was my first requited love.  I’d fallen truly, madly, deeply for several boys at school five years or so previously.  I never declared my feelings – this was the 1970s – but hinted unsubtly enough for most of them to get the message.  None were remotely interested, and one went so far as to kick me ferociously if I strayed within range of his platform shoe.  Lest you write off my adolescent self as pitifully desperate and cosmetically challenged, I should point out that other boys were infatuated with me but they were always the wrong ones.  

At times, our boys-only fifth form positively pulsated with suppressed, homosexual lust.  There were lingering, heartbroken looks; coquettish fiddling with our (then obligatory) long hair; heads just that crucial millimetre too close as they pored over shared set works; all of it noticed, gasped at and commented upon.

I don’t think any of my classmates ever got it together, although fair play to them if they did.  And I can’t decide, even now from a 51-year-old happy homo’s perspective, whether the torrid ambience was a damning indictment or ringing endorsement of single-sex schooling.

Anyway, back to the shiny black guy with the leopard print loincloth who happened along five years later……

Let us call him Luther, for Luther is not his name.  We met when we both had non-speaking parts in an episode of Angels, a hospital-based drama serial made at the BBC’s now demolished Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham.

In those days, only members of Equity were allowed to undertake such work.  I had obtained my coveted union card through singing and playing the piano in pubs and restaurants.  Luther had procured his by stripping.  In fact, back then, it seemed possible to join the actors’ union by doing anything except acting.  Stories of actresses who’d become magicians’ assistants or club singers solely to gain membership were legion.

I was a virginal, naive, 20-year-old trainee journalist from Birmingham’s affluent white suburbs.  He was 26, a factory worker by day who got his kit off for money at hen nights by night, from the tough, multi-racial inner city.  He had fathered three children before realising he was gay, and lived in a council tower block with his boyfriend.

He was therefore both unavailable and my parents’ worst nightmare in terms of a partner for their son, being neither female, white, middle-class nor what they would have considered respectable.  All of this rendered him utterly irresistible, needless to say.

We spent most of the 12-hour shift at the BBC together.  Being extras or walk-ons in TV shows involves long periods of inactivity interspersed with brief spells of being man-in-pub or man-walking-past-building, so we had plenty of time to get to know each other.

He wasn’t remotely camp and had mentioned his children but not his shift in sexuality by the time we broke for dinner, yet I found myself unable to resist surreptitiously caressing his arm as we supped lagers in the bar, thereby risking a smack in the gob, such was the strength of my attraction.

He took my phone number and promised to call but didn’t.  A week went by.  Agony!  Then I discovered my phone was faulty.  It was fixed and, within an hour, Luther called.  He’d been trying every night.

Without a thought for his poor boyfriend, I positively hurtled into his bed.  It was thrilling and wonderful and fun and relaxed and comfortable and right and utterly, utterly overwhelming.  I have never been happier and it remains one of the top ten moments of my life.  How sorry I feel for those whose first time was a flaccid failure or painful error of judgement.

With all the arrogance of youth, I was soon demanding that Luther choose between his live-in lover of three years and me.  He chose me.

From then on, I often drove him to his stripping engagements, a disproportionately high number of which, for some reason, took place in Leicester.  I was introduced as his manager and was the only man allowed to remain in the room as baying, tanked-up woman tried to grab his tackle as he discoed past dressed as an African warrior or precocious schoolboy.  Friends were amazed that this never drove me to a frenzy of jealously.  In fact, it made me feel smug.  The women had to buy a £5 ticket plus their drinks merely to cop a feel – if they were exceptionally lucky; I’d be getting the full works a couple of hours later for free.  The thought of how they might have reacted had they known the truth of his relationship with his ‘manager’ only added to the frisson.

We were together for nearly a year but it was never quite right, except in the bedroom where it always seemed intensely right to me, not that I had anything to compare it with.  To (almost) quote from another song, this time by the sainted Elaine and Barbara, ‘And though I moved my world to be with him/Still the gap between us was too wide’.  Luther was happily plodding along as a factory storeman; I was writing for a newspaper and studying for my journalism finals.  I dreamed of a broadcasting career in London; his ambition was to make ends meet, spend time with his kids and enjoy a few pints and a boogie on a Saturday night.

I called time on the relationship, then was badly hurt by a string of one-night-stand merchants.  I went round to his flat to beg for forgiveness and a second chance.  His smile upon seeing me would have lit up a small town.  Clearly, he had missed me dreadfully and I was going to get my way.  Then he introduced me, thankfully before I could launch into my well-rehearsed take-me-back speech, to Ian who was quite obviously the new me.  I managed to hold it together long enough to have a cup of tea with them before hurrying home to bawl my eyes out.

I didn’t see Luther for nearly 20 years until we were reunited by a mutual acquaintance.  As I knocked on his door, I realised, to my surprise and annoyance, that my heart was pounding.  Of course, the Luther who answered my knock was just a pleasant-looking 50-year-old, well-preserved apart from a bit of a beer belly.  What else did my thumping heart expect?

And yet, after a couple – and only a couple – of glasses of wine and the delicious meal he’d made, I was back under his spell.  Had he said in his fabulous half Brummie-half Jamaican accent: “You’re not going home.  Get upstairs and get ready for bed,” I confess I would have obeyed with indecent haste and a shameful lack of dignity.

Thank God he didn’t.  We haven’t since become best mates, but we bump into each other every once in a while and it’s always a pleasure.

Whether he still keeps his Zulu spear, schoolboy’s satchel or head-to-toe leather gear in the attic, I’ve no idea.  If he does, it’s probably best, like so many things, left undisturbed.

He’d never squeeze the leather over that dear little beer belly in any case.

1 comment:

  1. Touching story Bill. It was lovely that years on you should both meet up again and remain friends.

    We all change so much - decade by decade so I'm sure, as you pointed out, you made the right decision...