I missed the ‘Summer of Love’ because I was between the first and second year at senior school. Too young, obviously. But we certainly knew about it, my friend Nancy Passarelli and me. We heard our parents talking about it, saw photographs in the Daily Sketch and listened to Radio Caroline. ‘Are you Going to San Francisco?’ sang Scott Mackenzie. No, we weren’t. Nancy went to Sorrento with her parents. I went to Hemsby Holiday Camp in Norfolk with mine. We had a lot to catch up on when we got home, mostly me listening to Nancy who’d done much more exciting things with her Italian family, like swimming in the Mediterranean sea, eating pasta, tasting wine for the first time – and falling in love with her cousin Giovanni. All that happened to me was a spotty boy asking me to dance at the holiday camp clubhouse one night and my father seeing him off because I was too young. Just gruesome and dead embarrassing. My face turned the same colour as my hair.
The holidays were always over in sixty seconds flat. No sooner had we broken up than we were back again at St Hilda’s High School for Girls, yawning through lessons, queuing for our disgusting smelling lunch, rolling our waistbands over to make our skirts shorter and, as usual, getting into trouble. We got into trouble a lot at school. Well, me more than Nancy. I mostly got told off for looking out the window during French or drawing cartoons in Maths. Even in Geography, which I really liked, I could go a whole lesson and not remember a thing. Then whichever teacher it was would say:
– Why don’t you pay attention in class, Susan, and use the brain God gave you?
And I would shrug, not because I was rude but because I didn’t know why the others could concentrate and I couldn’t, why I was so different. Or ‘lacking application’, as the teachers called it, swiftly followed by:
– Detention, tomorrow, four o’clock.
Then Nancy took the mickey out of me, specially when she got better marks.
That was probably how I missed the lesson about sexual reproduction in Biology. Apparently it was the proper, technical stuff that Miss Warren taught us, not the sort we giggled about in the toilets. All I remembered was I got an order mark for combing my hair behind the desk lid.
Every miserable school report I brought home said the same thing ‘Could do better’ – in almost all the subjects. I’d go in to see Dad after he’d eaten his tea and face his disappointment. Then I’d hear him and Mum have the same conversation, with Dad saying:
– She gets more like your sister every day.
– She can’t help what she looks like. Some people like red hair. And it’s not like we see Fiona that often – thanks to you.
– The reason we don’t is she’s irresponsible! A she-monster, with a mouth like a Clydeside docker and manners to match. We don’t want Susan to behave like her as well as look like her.
I thought ‘she-monster’ was a bit much, she was hardly Godzilla. Personally, I thought Dad didn’t like Aunty Fee because she wore nice clothes and laughed a lot. Two things Mum didn’t do, he made sure of that. It was another thing I did that was wrong. Laugh. I nearly got thrown out of the Brownies for laughing too much. But Nancy said she’d leave if I did so they let me stay. I didn’t get into Guides because of my reputation so Nancy didn’t join, either.
I used to go round to Nancy’s house whenever I could. They had a Dansette record player and her parents had lots of records. She and her older brother, David, shared a Beach Boys LP. Our favourites were I Get Around, Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and The Monster Mash – we used to dance about looking creepy. I envied her having a big family, five kids, the way they talked all the time, shared each other’s food, and nobody went to bed till hours after dinner. Dinner. We called it ‘tea’ at home. It made me feel ashamed of how ordinary we were.
Mum and I used to eat our ‘tea’ earlier than Dad then Mum would sit with him in the kitchen listening to the radio while I stayed in the living room so as not to bother him. They only spoke if he wanted the salt or she’d paid the gas bill today. I could hear through the connecting door. Afterwards, I had to go in to say goodnight before I went to bed.
The Passarelli kids had English names because Nancy’s mum said their surname was foreign enough. Their Italian granny, Nonna, lived with them. She wore her black headscarf, even indoors, and grinned showing her gappy teeth. She pointed at me once, gabbled in Italian and Nancy’s Mum answered her back. Next day Nancy told me that Nonna had said: “She has the eyes and the hair of the devil, that one!”. And Mrs Passarelli said: “Nonsense, Nonna! She’s lovely, she has the same colouring as Moira Shearer”.
I was used to comments about my red hair, but never about my eyes. Did the devil have blue eyes? And who was Moira Shearer? I never sat next to Granny Passarelli after that.
David knocked around with us sometimes. He was two years older, so really adult. One day, round the back of Mr Passarelli’s shed, the three of us tried to make roll-up cigarettes out of newspaper and dried herbs but it wouldn’t stick properly and they tasted disgusting. It was the Easter holidays, I think, because there was white blossom on the pear tree. Then Mrs Passarelli called for Nancy to come in and do her piano practice, so David and me were left alone together, and he said:
– Have you ever done the kiss of love?
I just gulped. The what? He rolled his eyes at me for being a scaredy-cat.
– It’s all right. It doesn’t hurt. Nancy’s done it.
– What? With you?
– No, stupid. That would be incest.
I thought he must have said ‘incense’, because they were Catholic. But that wouldn’t make sense and, anyway, it sounded more like ‘incest’ and I didn’t know what that was. Perhaps it was just me not listening properly. Then he said:
– She did it with Ian next door.
I was instantly suspicious. If Nancy had done anything like the ‘kiss of love’ she would have told me about it. And Ian looked like a gnome, anyway. I didn’t want to do anything with David apart from just muck about. But he went on and on.
– I’ve done it loads of times. You’re not really grown up until you have. Come on! I’ll give you two bob.
– What do I have to do?
– Pull your dress up.
I did and he put his hand down my knickers.
– Now you put your hand down my underpants.
Immediately I felt something warm and flesh-like but stiff. I pulled my hand back but he held it there with his free hand. Then I felt him squeeze me between the legs, on my minnie.
– Just hold my willie for a little while.
So we stood like that for a minute or so and then he said:
– We can stop, now. Don’t tell anyone what we’ve done because it’s sacred.
So maybe it was a Catholic thing, I thought. I swore I wouldn’t tell, not even Nancy. I wasn’t likely to anyway because if it meant I wasn’t a virgin any more no-one would ever want to marry me. Then he said:
– I’ll have to owe you the two bob till I get paid for my paper round.
Once I’d done the ‘kiss of love’, though, even though I stayed quiet about it, I started noticing boys. And talking about them. And thinking about them. (Not David, of course, who never came up with the two shillings.) All the noticing and talking and thinking about boys meant I paid even less attention in class. Nancy got really fed up with me:
– You’re so boring, going on about boys all the time. We haven’t even started bleeding, yet.
– Periods. You’re not supposed to like boys until then.
– Periods of what?
– Bleeding. You remember? In biology.
– And the playground, afterwards? Pretending bleeding to death?
– Yes. I didn’t know what all that was about.
– You are so useless!
I met David round the rec a couple of times and we did the kiss of love again in the bushes behind the park keeper’s hut. I didn’t mention the money he’d promised, it seemed a bit, well, ‘off’. He tried to kiss me on the lips, once, but I wasn’t having that. Snogging was too serious, or so I thought until his cousin Giovanni came to stay, the one Nancy was in love with.
By then, it was the summer holidays again. I met him on his third day in England. He was seventeen and I could see why Nancy fancied him. When we were introduced and he said “Ciaou, Susie” I thought I would quite happily die on the spot. I teased her about the Nancy/fancy rhyme. But she was more than usually cross with me. We were walking past the shopping parade on the way to meet Giovanni, David and Ian (the gnome-lookalike David said Nancy’d done the ‘kiss of love’ with) at the Lido when she finally exploded.
– Are you totally thick or what, Susan?
Like my parents, she called me Susan when I’d annoyed her.
– There can never be a future for me and Giovanni. And you think it’s really funny because I’m so unhappy.
– OK, you’re unhappy. I’m really, really sorry, all right? But why can’t there be a future for you and Giovanni?
– Because our babies would be deformed monsters! Or idiots!
– Incest! Per carita’ de Dio!
The incense thing again. And some Italian. Nancy often said things she’d heard at home without knowing what they meant. Anyway, she ran into the Co-op, crying.
I assumed there must be something odd about Giovanni. But from my point of view, he was just totally gorgeous, I mean really handsome and, well, sexy. I didn’t care whether I’d have an idiot monster baby, I wanted to feel Giovanni’s olive skin next to mine, run my fingers through his wavy black hair and stare into his deep, deep brown eyes. And his full lips and white, white teeth were made for snogging.
There was a lot of mucking about at the Lido and we got told off by the attendant. But I saw Giovanni looking at me and I wished I’d got a bikini like Nancy (who turned up later, despite her fear of incense) instead of the one piece that Mum insisted I wear for another year, even though it wasn’t really big enough to cover my growing breasts properly. It didn’t stop me looking back at Giovanni, though, and it didn’t stop me smiling when he smiled at me. And it certainly didn’t stop me squealing every time he ‘accidentally’ brushed past me in the water. Nancy was furious and hissed at me to leave him alone.
After that afternoon, she stopped asking me round and was always busy when I went to call for her. So I was thrilled to meet Giovanni coming out of the corner shop one hot afternoon. He was opening a packet of cigarettes. Devastatingly sophisticated.
– Eh – Susie! Ciaou. I don’t see you many days. Why?
– Oh er, I – I’ve been busy.
He lit a cigarette and offered me one and said:
– You want to come for a walk?
– Er, no thank you – I mean, I don’t smoke. But yes – the walk bit.
My mother’s shopping list and ten-shilling note curled forgotten in my shorts pocket.
I took him to the rec, to the bushes behind the park keeper’s hut where we sat down and I watched him lovingly as he finished his cigarette.
– You are very beautiful, Susie.
– So are you.
God, I am such an idiot, I thought, I could have an idiot baby without any help.
And because he didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak any Italian except some dirty words David had taught me, the next best thing we could do was snog. Which we did for a long time. I was quite shocked when he put his tongue in my mouth. It didn’t taste very nice because of the cigarette, but I liked the way it felt. So we snogged until my lips were swollen and sore and the corner shop had shut and I was in trouble with Mum.
The next day, we met at the rec again and snogged some more and then he did the kiss of love thing to me, except he touched me down there but right inside and rubbed, round and round. It felt tingly and lovely then suddenly it spread everywhere, right through me and I made an –
Then we heard the park keeper dragging his wire bin along the path and we scarpered.
Next morning when I woke up, I saw some spots of blood in the bed. I couldn’t think why because I hadn’t cut myself anywhere or knocked a scab off my knee. There was more on my nightie. Was there a monster idiot baby inside me already? Trying to get out? Mum noticed before I could do anything.
– I’m really sorry, Mum. I think I must have had an accident.
– You haven’t had an accident, Sue. You’ve come on.
– I’ve been waiting for this. We’d better get you sorted out.
Next thing I knew, she’d got me into a pink elastic contraption with hooks on it and attached a big white haystack that went between my legs. It was so big I could hardly walk.
– Am I ill?
– No, Sue. You’ve become a woman. You’ve started your periods.
It all fell into place – periods, bleeding between the legs.
– How long do they go on, Mum?
– About forty years, give or take.
– Forty years? Non-stop?
Mum just laughed. I was stuck at home. I didn’t want to go out, walking awkwardly with a huge sanitary pad chafing me. And I couldn’t meet Giovanni. Imagine the shame of him seeing that. At least I wasn’t about to give birth to a monster.
It finished in under a week but I left it another day, just to make sure. I didn’t know how I could get to see Giovanni. I went for walks through the park, hung around the corner shop and walked past the end of Nancy’s road. No luck. The need to see him clawed away at me inside. I re-ran scenes of our time behind the hut and, in bed at night, I touched myself where he had. But I couldn’t make the same feeling happen.
One afternoon, coming back from the Lido on my own, I saw him coming out of the station with Mrs Passarelli and the five children. My hair was still damp and I had my wet things in a carrier bag. I looked a right freak. Mrs Passarelli waved at me and called:
– Susie! Hello, stranger. Where have you been hiding?
– Um, nowhere.
– We’ve been up to London, to the Natural History Museum.
– Nancy? Aren’t you going to say hello to your friend? Oh dear, she’s in one of her moods, Susie. Have you just been swimming? Good idea. It was much too hot to be in London.
We all stood awkwardly, Nancy avoiding looking at me, David studying his railway ticket and the younger ones whining to go home. Giovanni smiled at me a little shyly. He must have thought I’d been avoiding him. Then I almost fell in love with Mrs Passarelli, too, because she said:
– Why don’t you join us for dinner tonight? You can ring your Mum from ours. I’m sure it’ll be all right. Mr Passarelli can drive you home.
– Oh, yes please!
Then she broke my heart:
– It’ll be your last chance to see Giovanni. He goes home tomorrow.
Dinner was the usual chaotic occasion. Nancy made sure I sat between two of the little Passarellis, far away from Giovanni. From opposite ends of the table he and I caught eyes a couple of times, each making me squirm in my seat. Granny Passarelli missed nothing and kept looking at Giovanni and then me and back again. Mr and Mrs Passarelli and Giovanni drank a lot of wine, Nancy and David were allowed a glass each and Giovanni a little more. As I didn’t have my parents’ permission to drink I had to stick to orange squash. After dinner, Mrs Passarelli said:
– I think we ought to call a taxi for you, Susie. Mr Passarelli’s had far too much to drink to drive the car.
Mr Passarelli was irritated:
– Per carita’ de Dio!
But Giovanni came up with the most wonderful, beautiful, devastatingly gorgeous solution:
– I will walk with Susie to her house.
It felt as though I exploded joyously like a glorious, bright, sexy firework. But I probably just went red. Nancy certainly did a good impression of a thundercloud and said:
– I’ll go, too.
And, surprise, surprise, David piped up, as well:
– So will I.
I felt my insides collapsing with disappointment and misery until Mrs Passarelli said:
– Giovanni, that’s a lovely idea. You walk Susie home. Nancy and David can start clearing the table. Now.
– Oh what? / That’s not fair! / Why? (Guess who that was?)
So, Giovanni walked me home. But that’s not all Giovanni did. Or all I did. Because, of course, we went the long way round, through the rec. And we went back to the bushes behind the park keeper’s hut and lay down on the twiggy grass. And that’s the best part of what I remember… his mouth tasting of red wine and cigarettes. His hands undressing me, caressing my body, that marvellous thing he did with his fingers. I felt really wet down there and I was worried that I might be bleeding. Then I forgot as his lips and teeth tickled and nibbled my nipples – the nipple part really surprised me until… suddenly, he spread my legs really wide apart and pushed his willie right inside me. I must have yelled.
– Is OK, amore mia, I love you.
– I love you too, but –
He kept pushing and pushing, in and out of me and I held onto him. I started to cry but I didn’t know why and then suddenly he gave a big groan and stopped.
I wiped off the sticky stuff that was running down my legs with my swimming towel. Then we dusted off the twigs and dirt, checked there was no-one around and crept out from behind the park keeper’s hut. Giovanni walked me the rest of the way home, holding me tight, stopping to kiss me every few yards and murmuring in Italian. I asked him what he was saying.
– It means my angel with the hair of fire. I will teach you Italian one day.
I could see the light spilling from the open front door at home so I had to disentangle from Giovanni. My father was standing with the light behind him but I could still see he was angry.
– I’ve had to ring Mr Passarelli – we thought something had happened to you! What took you so long?
That was the last time I saw Giovanni, with Dad looking furious and Mum behind him, looking worried.
It was still hot when we went back for the autumn term at St Hilda’s. As a special dispensation, the headmistress said we could wear our cotton summer uniforms until the weather cooled. Nancy still wouldn’t speak to me and went around with Celia Brudenell. One day, Celia leaked blood onto the pale green of her skirt, making a great blotch on the back. No-one told her, not even Nancy. We were all too embarrassed. That’s how we’d been taught. A teacher must have said something at lunchtime because Celia wasn’t there in the afternoon. I wore a sanitary towel every day after that so as not to risk the embarrassment.
I still didn’t pay attention in lessons but I didn’t laugh much. I was too sad that Giovanni had gone and I couldn’t write to him because Nancy wouldn’t give me his address. She also said if he sent me a letter care of her house she’d throw it away.
The weather turned cold and we changed into our dark green skirts and jumpers, bloody mishaps wouldn’t be so obvious. Besides, I hadn’t had a period for a while, but Mum said that was normal to start with.
During October, I started feeling queasy and being sick. Mum kept me off a couple of mornings and I went to the sanatorium once at school. It soon passed. But in the Christmas holidays, something else happened. I felt something move. Inside me.
In the new year, I got three order marks in the first week for not paying attention in class. It turned out to be neither a monster nor an idiot that was distracting me.