I revisited my past last weekend. Did I time travel? As near as feasibly possible I did, yes. I am moving house soon and am currently dismantling my home of 11 years, deciding what comes with me and what goes. Shoved at the back of a cupboard, untouched for the whole time I have lived here, and in reality much longer, was a box of letters. A very large box of letters. In fact, all of the letters I received from the point at which I went to university aged 18, to my mid-twenties.
I read every one of those letters. I read from 6pm on Friday evening until 1am on Saturday morning. I was on the sofa again by 7am and read through the day. I returned from the theatre at 11pm and folded the last letter away at about 2am on Sunday morning. I am sure those letters bought joy, comfort and some sadness when I received them, but reading them 20 years on in one intense sitting was a truly hilarious, heart-warming and eye-opening experience.
We all know teenagers and young adults are a seething mass of uncontrollable hormones, right? We probably all remember when the benchmark of a good night was whether we had ‘pulled’ or whether the current object of our infatuation was in the pub. But my God, I didn’t realise how ardently we articulated this. Sex, it turns out, was the constant topic of conversation.
There was the urgent and hilarious: “I am so horny I nearly crawled across the bar and asked the hot barman to give me an orgasm”, “I am such a seething mass of hormones that I want to rip the clothes off every man I see”, and one letter from a friend on the occasion of me losing my virginity, “now you know how amazing sex is you’ll be gagging for it all the time, eh?” Poetry they are not.
Battles born out of immature emotions colliding with maturing sexuality are faithfully charted. An 18-year-old friend casually drops into conversation that her ex is using her handcuffs with a new girlfriend, before describing in exhaustive detail a ‘he said, I said, I stared out the window and pretended not to hear him’ exchange. I recall being frequently annoyed (jealous?) at her bragging about her sex life. I expect when I read that letter 22 years ago I rolled my eyes at the mention of handcuffs before devouring the more familiar territory of drawn-out teenage drama. I read it with more compassion this weekend.
Then there’s my worried Mum writing during my first week at university, encouraging me to use my thick duvet, including recipes for “tasty but cheap” meals, and then at the very end casually dropping in the brand name of her pill – “better to be safe than sorry”. I didn’t grow up with my Mum so never had the period or first boyfriends chat with her. I imagine this sudden concern for the potential impact of a horny 18-year-old experiencing independence for the first time was deeply mortifying for me at the time.
And there were letters from boyfriends demonstrating such maturity that I would welcome them now. One received from a 20-year-old telling me what our relationship meant him, but also explaining that with the heartbreak of his first love still fresh in his mind he didn’t want anything very serious right now. I do remember receiving that one. I also remember my flouncing hysterical response and the look of hurt on his face as he rushed out of our favourite university haunt, and I am embarrassed. Reading it now I see integrity, kindness and respect and the subtle bear with me message. I have no idea how much time he took writing that letter but it has taken me 20 years to appreciate it.
I don’t know what made 18-year-old me squirrel away those first letters and then faithfully add to the pile for some seven years. And I don’t know how they then escaped the inevitable purges that have come as a result of living in eight flats in the intervening two decades. I am very glad they did.
Oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
Pulp, Sorted For E’s and Whizz
A friend’s Facebook notification popped up this week. “20 years ago today three cute 20-year-old girls were hurtling their way to Glastonbury in a VW Bug. They slept in a tiny brown tent, had all of their stuff nicked, but had the time of their lives.”
Damn right we had the time of our lives. And yes, we may have been cute in a young sort of way, but as the flurry of questionable old photos that followed showed, 40 whips the arse of 20. We’re significantly hotter now, and much much more sorted!
Ladies, in response to our reminiscing I promised you a Glastonbury-inspired photo, so here it is. Not sure this shot will ever replace the ubiquitous ‘hot young woman in wellies’ shot that adorns most front pages at some point during this weekend…
A friend wanted to create a trippy feeling photo to bring out the festival vibe. I love it, but *think* I prefer the original. What do you think?
I have been so excited about taking this photograph! It was really important to me that the first person who I photographed for Exposing 40 was this friend. Call me sentimental.
Yesterday morning. Tea and toast in a sunny kitchen, catching up on gossip. Then: “Darling, we are going to the bathroom to photograph the scar where you came out of Mummy, you can come in if you want.” My God, my friend is the most laidback cool mum. Her son is a dream.
Footsteps pad down the hallway towards us and a face appears, bearing very important news: “Auntie Catherine, this is a Roman warrior.” A few minutes later: “MUMMY, there’s a bee in the kitchen.”
It was funny and perfect and I will hold the memory close.
The Whitechapel Smile is what my friends (her husband is not just her husband, he’s my friend too!) call her caesarean scar, in an affectionate nod to the hospital where their son was born. When we first chatted about photographing her scar she described how she once hated it but now thinks of it as being part of the “rich tapestry of my life.”
We talked about it yesterday. She touched on her issues with the physicality of the scar – the lip it’s created that’s visible through swimwear, the fact that underwear slips down and gets caught uncomfortably in the ridge. But more interesting were her reflections on how motherhood had changed her relationship with her body.
That relationship had always been a close one – it wasn’t disassociated from the rest of life in the way some people separate their physical and intellectual selves: “I really inhabited my body, I was aware of it.” Childbirth changed all of that. Nearly four years on she says it’s only really in the last six months that she feels really in touch with her body again, that it is once again becoming an expression of herself and her sexuality.
“What’s happened in the last six months?”
“From 30, when I looked in the mirror my feelings about what I saw were all about not looking as good as I once had. I felt like I was fading.”
She was driving as we chatted and glanced away from the road to me.
“We are aging really well you know. We both look bloody good for 40.”
Eyes back to the road.
“Now, when I look in mirror I don’t see what’s gone I think ‘bloody hell you look good for your age.’ Forty feels like a turning point.”
Thank you for yesterday, my glorious friend.