Lying is something I had become good at with practice. Before I came out, it was so deeply integral to the way I lived my life that it was hard, afterwards, to unpick which parts of myself were armour and which parts of myself were real. For years and years, I curated my mannerisms, my hobbies, my taste in music, books, friends, clothes, haircuts.
Every extrinsic thing became an opportunity for diversion, a way to deflect any chance that people might see the part of myself I was keeping hidden. In fact, I’m not sure I ever outgrew that armour. Queerness involved a process of becoming, undertaken in a world built around heterosexuality, and so that process happened in no small part through the ways I butted up against the world I lived in. Sexuality was constructed into selfhood, into identity, as I grew up. I moulded myself in contrast to – or in consonance with – the world as I found it; I regulated myself, I policed myself.
When I read the letters of the queer modernist poet Karin Boye, translating my way through the turmoil of her depression and my own isolation whilst living in her native Sweden, I saw myself in them. To a friend, she wrote that ‘within everything I had made mine from without, without it being mine, there was a reality that conflicted with this outward self, beautiful but not my own.’ All her religious and moral ideas, all the conventions she had brought inside herself, were at odds with another self she knew existed. ‘There has been a hard battle within me,’ she wrote, ‘whether to give up my will or to worship my will.’ To submit, or to assert. To have the freedom of invisibility, or the freedom of distinction. I had chosen to hide. I had lived a dual life, disconnected from my real self, so that by the time I emerged into adulthood, I was left with a task of rediscovery – or recovery. The trajectory was not always linear. If I was to move forward, to trade the freedom of invisibility for the freedom of distinction, I had to look back. I dug at the detritus of the years, brushed and dusted them away, and hoped that, in the end, I might find something intact, a part of myself preserved, brought up to the light.Of course, it wasn’t easy. The lies had become part of me, and some of the things I had suppressed never seemed to come back, or else they came back brutalised and changed.
Mostly, I found that the world outside the closet required me to keep the armour on. I traded my first closet for a bigger, roomier one. At work or at home, on public transport or just walking down the street, I shifted in and out of sight, always aware of being watched. I had practised secrecy for so long that I not only became adept at it, but it became part of myself, so that even walking down the street holding hands with another man seemed (in a contorted way) to be a violation not of the outside world, but of my own being. All those years spent sneaking around, littering my path with a thousand white lies, left me reluctant to be found out, scared of betraying myself.
As a child I was a famously good liar. My mother, who was a primary school teacher when I was growing up, said that out of all the children she knew, I was one of the few who could fool her completely. I would lie and I would believe the lie. I spent many hours observing the people around me to figure out what ‘normal’ looked like. Then, like a finely prepared actor, I stepped out and played the role. I got so good at it, in fact, that after a time even I started to forget which parts of myself were scripted and which parts weren’t. Where did the character end and where did I begin? How can we know the dancer from the dance?
This set me in good stead for being a teenager. All teenagers get used to lying – they keep secrets, nurse private longings, and lash out when they find themselves treated, inexplicably, like children. They spend their days living in a halfway house between childhood and the adult world. But for me, the divide was even closer to home. I didn’t just keep secrets from my family, but from my friends and, often enough, from myself as well. Following suit, I didn’t just lash out at others, I lashed out at myself. When the real, buried part of me reared its head, I tried to push it down into the dark again, only to have its urgency up-end me.
Sometimes, when I felt that my grip on the lie was subsiding, or it seemed as though my carefully constructed other self was fading away, and my real self becoming too visible, too open to suspicion, I would take action. At high school, I started to spread rumours about myself, confiding in some loose-lipped friend that I fancied a girl in the year above, or insinuating that I had kissed someone at the disco that happened once a term at the local rugby club. When I was about fifteen years old, though, my fictions became more untenable. Quite quickly, people at school began to rack up notches on their bedposts (or notches on the benches of public parks), and still there I was, failing to take up any opportunity that presented itself. So, inevitably, the questions came. And when I felt close to detection, when groups of boys at school began calling me queer, naming the thing they had been honed to recognise, I hatched a plan.
When my parents were out one evening, and my brothers were not at home, I went down to the living room and turned on the television. It was a new wide-screen, and you could see it through the front window from the pavement across the street. In the evenings I would walk home and see the teatime soap operas playing, the backs of my family’s heads turned towards the TV, watching. We lived on a main road – there were always cars going by, and kids from school walking along the street outside, waving over the hedge as they passed – and tonight, I hoped, would be no different. I drew open the curtains, looping the cord in a figure-of-eight on to the little cleat hook, and sat down on the sofa.
There were pay-per-view channels on the new TV. I had found them a few digits down from the music stations. On those channels, half-naked women flirted with the camera, sitting on plush red cushions, the chatline numbers panning across the lower part of the screen. I turned on the TV and found the right station. A woman called Sophie was lying in a blue bikini, her legs wrapped around a metal pole. I muted the volume, not wanting to hear the things she might say when a call came in, and I sat on the sofa with the big windows behind me and the noises of the cars passing, and I waited to be caught. My knees were shaking, as if I were very cold, and I put my hands on top of them to hold them down.
I don’t know how long I sat there. I was afraid that my parents or my brothers would come home early, but perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad after all. Perhaps that would buy me more time. Sophie began to move up and down the pole, holding onto it with her thighs, her long blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders. Then, after what felt like forever, I heard some shouts from outside, coming closer to the house. After a minute, the shouts burst into a cackle of excitement behind me. Then, there was a rapid banging on the window.
I jumped up, embarrassed now, not wanting to turn around. I could hear voices saying my name and laughing manically. When I finally turned my head, I saw them: three boys I knew from school, their breath smeared on the window. I stood staring at them, my face bright red. The reflection of the woman on the TV was projected across their faces, and the flats of their palms were pressed up on the glass like clammy stars. The woman’s reflected dance moved across the pane, and I was completely still, frozen in place, as though I was caught inside the box of a camera, the only unmoving thing in a world of colour. I could hear them laughing in disbelief, jubilant at my shame, their words pealing down a scale like church bells, repeating, saying ‘Oh my God’, ‘Oh my God’, ‘Oh my God’.
In my teenage years I spent my life in constant negotiation between these two selves. My real self was in there, but I only let him out on occasion, often when I was alone or when I was with people whose anonymity made them safe. At that time there were no other gay people (that I knew of) in my school of over 2,000 students. Clearly, there were kids performing their own works of legerdemain, hiding behind facades so carefully constructed that even I – a close observer of the art of deception – couldn’t see past them.
I knew that I would have to look further afield. Online, I joined chat rooms or dating sites under false names, and invented detailed backstories about myself so that I couldn’t be recognised. I split myself so many times that I lived out entire fantasies of imagined possibility in my mind, and in the minds of the men I spoke to. Occasionally, I was brave enough to broach the prospect of moving those imagined selves out of the internet and into real life. Sometimes, I arranged to meet people, but in the end I could never pluck up the courage to follow through. I left one boy, just a year older than me, waiting at a train station for over an hour, until he realised I wasn’t coming, and sent me a heartbroken message when he got home. I felt guilty and ashamed.
Those fictional versions of myself were, paradoxically, closer to the real me than the me I showed to my friends and family, though each of them had a flourish of fantasy: a name I thought was more masculine than my own, perhaps. I was John or Steve or Adam. Some of them had an interest in football (the details of which I gleaned through overhearing the talk of my brother when he watched the matches); others had secret girlfriends and were curious about being with men (a projection, probably, of my own fantasies about seducing the boys at school who made life hard for me).
At home, at night in my bedroom, I also experimented with lying to myself. I would close my eyes and bring into my mind the image of a girl from school, or a woman I had seen on television, and concentrate on the image, hoping to train myself into attraction. For months I attended to this personal conversion, thinking of men, longing for them, and then at the last minute substituting the image of a woman. I hoped that I might trick my body, might reset its desires if I could associate its pleasure with these imagined women. Each night, I communed with these women, feeling guilty for subjecting them to my experiments, exasperated at myself for not being able to hold their images in place. Unfailingly, my mind would revert. I would be focusing on their hair, their skin, the shape of their breasts – all those things the other boys talked about – but as I got closer to the edge of myself, a man would appear somewhere in the scene behind her and steal my attention.
Each night for months I practised this therapy, this ritual conditioning. After a time, I gave up. The power of these imagined people wore off, and I grew tired of the same shapes, the same smiles, the same places. I had so few images I could draw on: only once or twice had I seen another boy’s body, and then only in glimpses, stolen in changing rooms or at sleepovers. If I saw a music video on the TV, or could make out the shape underneath a footballer’s shorts, I would focus on it, memorise it, archive it for when I was next alone. My imagination lived on images, and even my fantasy worlds were made up of constructions and collages of reality. In the time of dial-up internet and a family computer that took several long minutes to download a single photograph, I had hardly any pictures to use. If, going about my life, I happened upon one, I would seize it, obsess over it, gaze at it like a talisman, hour by hour, until eventually it became faded and tawdry and lost its power.
So, starved and depleted and driven to invention, I turned to the one repository of images I had access to: those of my own body. Looking in the mirror, positioning myself so that my face wasn’t reflected back at me, I would focus on a part of my body and imagine it to be the body of some other man. In that way, I came to know my body in two separate ways, both as the thing I lived inside and also as a thing very close to what I desired in other men. But this was never narcissistic; in fact, I had to focus intently on the body I was looking at not being mine. Those nights, I would lie in bed, or sit on the floor of my room, and look at portions of myself in the mirror and pretend they belonged to someone else. A strange mixture of isolation and communion, a perfect circle of loneliness and also a perfect circle of self-love, each overlapping, blending, so that for a while (though not a long while) I managed to be almost self-sufficient in my desire for other men.
Eventually, though, I realised that it wasn’t only sex, but romance I wanted, in all its idealistic teenage frenzy. I wanted things I couldn’t give to myself: the tension when my arm would brush against the arm of another, the shortness of breath I felt when a boy at school would, however accidentally, touch me. So I went back to the computer, took out one of my alter egos, and began talking to a boy who lived in a town not far from mine. This time I followed through and arranged to meet him at Piccadilly Station in Manchester the next weekend. We planned to go to a matinee at the Cornerhouse, which would give us time to get home afterwards, but also (I hoped) a place where we might sit in the dark together, away from the gaze of other people. Where I lived, the public transport was clunky and unreliable. A twenty-mile trip could take upwards of two hours. One bus, another bus, the rain streaming down the window, hurtling down the narrow lanes, and then the orderly brightness of the tram, its smooth slow journey through the suburbs and into the city. Even though it wasn’t far, going into Manchester would mean being away from home all day.
When I reached Piccadilly, I was damp from the rain. My T-shirt stuck to my back and I could taste the wax from my hair as the water dripped down my forehead and nose and on to the top of my lip. I wanted time to sort myself out, to get dry, to check myself in the mirror before I met him. I took off my wet jacket and shook it out behind the sliding doors, the wind squalling into the station behind me – and then I saw him, standing by the departure boards. Tall, younger-looking than I expected, not at all dishevelled by the weather. I wondered if I could walk past him and take time to fix myself up before I said hello, but he noticed me staring and looked over quizzically, perhaps not knowing if it was me or not. I did a half-wave and a nod in his direction, before walking self-consciously across the wet linoleum of the station floor towards him. We shook hands awkwardly and he smiled as he introduced himself, then chattered nervously about the journey and the weather and how his hair was ruined. I ran my hand through my own hair to show him how wet it was, laughing, and told him I was just about to go to the bathroom to dry myself off.
We walked together across the concourse over to the toilets, where people were clumsily dropping change into the slots of the turnstiles and hobbling through, swinging their bags and coats behind them. I took out some coins from my pocket and went into the men’s bathrooms on the left. When I came out again, a few minutes later, he was waiting for me and looked anxious and apologetic.
‘Everything OK?’ I asked.
‘Sorry, I wanted to, but I didn’t have any change.’ I looked at him, confused.
‘You need money to get in. I couldn’t come in after you.’ I thought he needed to go to the toilet, too, and said I had some spare coins, rooting my finger down into the leather flap of my wallet.
‘No, it’s OK,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t matter.’
It was only months later that I realised what had happened in those awkward moments outside the station bathrooms. He had thought I was asking him to follow me, to come into the toilets, to have sex in the cubicle, and was embarrassed that he couldn’t get through the turnstile. Though I didn’t recognise it then, it was my first glimpse of that coded world I was about to be initiated into without my knowing.
At the time I thought it was probable that I was the only boy of my sort in my school. The bigger cities were far enough away to require a day trip, and besides, I didn’t know anyone there anyway. There was no one around me I could ever hope would reciprocate. I was so full of longing that I didn’t know how I could survive if I didn’t get it out. There were straight boys at school who I wanted, who I dreamt of. I would get a thrill of excitement when they did so much as acknowledge me, but after a few weeks I’d move on, knowing that nothing would ever happen. I turned back to the internet, answering advertisements on craigslist. Most of the men I found were too far away to meet up with; the others wouldn’t send photographs, or turned out to be far older than they said.
After a while, though, I found a man who lived not far away, and who had a car. He was older than me – I can’t remember how old, but I’d guess now that he was in his early thirties and I was about sixteen. I couldn’t invite a stranger to my parents’ house, of course, and I didn’t want to be seen out in public with a man I had no excuse for seeing. So we arranged to meet one night after dark on a lamplit path at the side of my village’s football club. He didn’t know the area, but I did. There was a tree-covered alley opposite that path, and I knew there were no lights in the alley. I figured I could wait there, in the darkness, hidden – I could see who this man was without him seeing me, and then I could decide what I was going to do next.
I remember walking out of the house and up the street, on to the canal bridge, and standing there looking down at the still, black water, the moon quivering on its surface, and thinking how stupid I was being. This could be the night I was killed – I might be found dead in a field, or my body might turn up in the boot of a car abandoned on a country road. The police would read my emails, would talk to my parents, and this would be how I was remembered, this was the thing that would be put in the papers. ‘high school student murdered by older man he met for outdoor sex.’ And yet my feet kept on walking, despite my better judgement. My body was coursing with a cocktail of hormones – I was desperate to meet someone, to touch someone, to let that buried part of myself out into the open. It needed to live. I needed to live.
I checked that no one was around on the street before I ducked quickly into the dark alleyway that would come out opposite our meeting point. I walked in the pitch black, my hand held up over my forehead to push back the overhanging branches, but I had gone down this alley many times and knew its turns, and could sense my progress by the changing levels of the fences of the gardens that backed on to it and by the fences of the fields on the other side. When I neared the end, I could see the road ahead, the five-bar gate, and then the lamplit path across from me, stretching out behind the football club and up towards the woods.
I stared at the cone of light from the lamp, the circle of brightness it cast across the narrow pathway and the hawthorn and beech hedges that bordered it. It was like a stage set – I stood in the dark, opposite, my breathing shallow and uncontrollably rapid, my knees shuddering, as I waited for the man to walk into the light. After a short while a small red car rounded the bend and passed by the path slowly. I heard it stop further up the road, and then I heard the sound of the car door opening and slamming shut. Then, footsteps.
The man who walked through the gate was tall and slim. He wore jeans and a hoodie. His head was hunched down, but his shoulders were broad and steady. He didn’t pause under the lamp, but walked on down the path, perhaps looking for me, perhaps just not wanting to stand too close to the road. My breath was still catching in my throat and I was shaking. I inhaled deeply, trying to hold myself still. I weighed the life of that locked-away self against the risk to my other self, this other life I was living; and this time I found the first was stronger, more wilful. And so I walked across the road, unbarred the gate and decided, just this once, to let that other self – to let myself – live.
Over the years, I did this many times, repeating the same ritual. I would hide and wait for the man to appear, and sometimes I would go forward, and other times I would slink off back down the dark path and walk home with a sense of relief. Every time I swore to myself it was the last time; but inevitably, maybe a month later, that other self would start shaking its cage inside me, becoming more urgent, until finally I let it free. As time passed, I felt a sense of control out there – I knew the pathways through the fields, knew where the brook was liable to flood over, where the ground gave way, which parts of the hedgerow were thinned and easy to pass through, where the clearings were between the trees. Because I always met people in the same place, it felt as though I was the host, welcoming them into a world I knew, walking off into the night with the sound of their footsteps following behind. Because there was nowhere else for me to go, I made a secret sort of home out there.
I thought, during those years, that I was the only person who had discovered this possibility of the night-time and of the woods and fields that ringed the edges of our suburb. Of course, that wasn’t true. Every town has its nooks, its abandoned plots, its playing fields. In fact, not long ago I looked into the archives of our local newspaper, and it was curious to see how often there were reports of men ‘loitering’ in lay-bys down the small roads on the outskirts or, it appeared, even closer to home in the public toilets in the village. Amongst articles on gay-bashing, hate crimes, angry letters about the lowering of the age of consent between two men (with all the attendant insinuations of paedophilia), I noticed a number of articles reporting complaints from residents about ‘undesirable activities’ – men hanging around in the churchyard near to the bus stop I used to alight from on the way to school.
The police sergeant warned in the paper that ‘Any person caught engaging in such activities can be arrested and have charges for gross indecency brought against them.’ Even though the crime of ‘gross indecency’ was removed from the law in 2003, perhaps it was lucky I never found these places. Still, it wasn’t only public toilets. One article from the early 2000s referred to ‘perverts’ (two men having consensual sex) in a park. Another reported that ‘gay porn sites’ were listing a number of locations across the town where men could meet each other: the town hall gardens, Bank Park, the market hall. The ‘venues’, the newspaper said, were even ‘given an individual star rating’ along with information about ‘peak times’. ‘Even particular bushes’ were given write-ups. I wondered which of Bank Park’s pink hydrangeas came out on top.
All these places I used to walk past, or walk through, and I never knew a thing. There was so much silence. The town I grew up in, in the north-west of England, sat astride the muddy waters of the River Mersey. It had an air of former grandeur: a golden gate in front of a stately town hall, Victorian public parks, grand buildings that were now home to charity shops and discount supermarkets. Near the centre, a soap and detergent factory sent a constant flow of steam from cooling towers, and the high street was ramshackle, the shops never seeming to survive long before lack of business shut up their doors. It was a big town, sprawling out into the countryside, and all the surrounding villages (like the one I lived in) had blurred their boundaries over the years and been swallowed into it. Years before, it had been a manufacturing hub, thriving on wire, steel and chemical production, but gradually the industries had left and were replaced by call centres and warehouses for impersonal corporations.
Still, despite the town’s size, I didn’t know anyone there who was gay. I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who was gay. There was no Queer Night to go to, no discussion of queerness at school, apart from through rumours and bullying. Boys of my generation, born in the late Eighties or early Nineties, grew up in a febrile, uncertain, and still hostile atmosphere. We were born during the most deadly years of the AIDS epidemic, but came of age after the tide had begun to turn. Even so, that history was embedded into us through a series of hints and warnings. At school, Section 28 meant that teachers couldn’t ‘promote’ homosexuality, which meant that it was never discussed at all. What I was left with was this unsettling feeling that we didn’t exist, or that there were so few of us I’d never find another person like me. I knew I didn’t exist alone – there were the men I met, after all – but I existed alone among the people I knew, the people I loved. Although there were moments of visibility on television or in music, things I looked out for secretively, trying not to show too much interest, all these instances seemed to be met with the lash. Popstars and actors would come out, and the media furore and the discussions I overheard were a warning to me not to do the same. I sensed it, and then I watched it happen. I stood at the edge of the path, staring towards the light, and then I turned and I walked myself back.
Not long ago, rooting through boxes at my parents’ house, I found a poem I had written when I was about eighteen or nineteen. The usual teenage stuff, perhaps, and not very good, but it struck me, when I discovered it, like something I had forgotten. I recognised the boy who had written it. I had lost him in the meantime and was grateful for this trace of his existence. The poem was called ‘My Twin Brother’. In it I had invented an identical twin. He was the one people loved; he was the one who was popular; he was the one whose every move I tried to imitate. In the poem, I killed him. It was violent and I had revelled in its gory images: the knife drawn across the skin of the throat, me lugging his body down the stairs, his head knocking on each step. At the end, I dragged the body into the street, so everyone could see what I had done. They were horrified, and I was free. I had killed him. He needed it. I needed it. Everywhere I went, he was there, in front of me. I had kept him alive while I could, but in the end, the bastard needed to go. If I hadn’t done it, he would have killed me instead, I was sure.
Sometimes I wonder how thorough I was; how thorough it is possible to be. Is he still there, in the back of my mind, saying things to me, speaking on my behalf? Am I still mimicking, still living in his shadow? Sometimes, still, I feel haunted by a part of myself. Meeting men at night, all those years, I let the ghost inside me out. It seemed right to me when I learned that ‘haunting’ used to be slang for cruising; ‘ghost’ for a closeted gay man. There’s something purgatorial about it, and something tantalisingly otherworldly. ‘I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair,’ wrote Wilfred Owen, becoming a ghost inside his own poem, hiding enough of himself that his readers might only guess what he meant when he wrote of a shadow walking along the moonlit Thames to the sound of shipping clanks and water.
I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.
And here I was, nearly a hundred years later, doing the same thing. I didn’t learn it from anyone – I thought I was the first man in the world to have discovered it. How could it be that I carried that history inside myself, some instinctive urge pulling me out of the house at night? Blake’s aphorism: ‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.’ Perhaps that was it. And it was friendship I discovered there: the men were kind to me, there was a camaraderie to it, a kinship. I think I was lucky to have found them.
By some instinct, when the world had blocked my path, I went out and made a new one; and it happened that the one I made was already there, already marked out by others, only it was invisible to me, as though all those men were speaking through me, moving me, haunting me, guiding me on. Perhaps that is why I feel so close to them, a sort of familial closeness – where they went I followed, and the further I went, the more I felt them watching over me. As I moved forward, I also moved back, looping history inside myself, listening to them, communing with them. When I could not speak to anyone, I spoke with them.
Image © Jason Brown
This is an excerpt from All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt, out with Jonathan Cape in the UK and Penguin Press in the UK.