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Touch Has a Memory
Note: This newsletter alternates between new pieces and writings from my scattered archives. This is one of the latter, first published in 2017, from a memoir I am writing, under the working title, Fire and Vultures.
Amid the hazy memories of my childhood is one certainty. I was an exceptionally physically clingy child. I remember clambering onto my mother’s lap and wrapping my arms and legs around her like a little monkey. I would try to stop my father from leaving for work by wrapping myself around one of his skinny legs like a human manacle, so that he would have to stumble the last few steps towards the door, in a three-legged race with a midget partner. I would clamber up and wrap myself around his shiny bald head like a living hijab. I liked the smell of the sallow, wrinkly skin of his neck and behind his ear, a scent impossible to describe: cumin and old parchment and a yeasty, beery, citrusy tangy note.
I remember riding piggyback astride the Bengali cook’s bony shoulders, fists closed tightly around the neckline of his cotton tunic. I remember the smooth feel of his son’s hand in my own damp little paw and squeezing his skinny torso in my arms and planting sloppy kisses on his sun-warmed cheek, a thread of saliva hanging between us in the air for a moment, a faerie’s skipping rope, glistening like spider silk on a dewy morning, as we separated from an awkward, slobbery kiss on the mouth.
And, right up until the end of my mother’s life, when I was nine and well past the usual age of total physical dependence, I had an insatiable need for maternal cuddles. I wouldn’t sit in my own chair, in a separate seat. I always wanted to be on her knee, face buried in her shoulder, holding her hand. I would come home from the Montessori school and sit snuggled right up against her like an affectionate little dog, obstructing her movements as she tried to paint, being daubed playfully on the nose with the occasional wet brush. And when she bent to kiss me goodnight, I would clutch at her, hang on her neck with all my weight and try to stop her from standing back up and leaving. I just wanted her face there, right next to my face, skin against skin, until I slept. I can still remember the smells of hair spray and a powdery tuberose and patchouli perfume—probably Anaïs Anaïs or Shalimar—and the colourful psychedelic swirls of her dresses (it was the 70s) and the sensation of the peachy softness of her cheek against mine.
After my parents died, it was ten years before I really hugged anyone again. I would stand there stiff and resistant while adults wrapped their arms around me and tried to squeeze me into a state of greater pliability. I winced slightly when people pecked me on the cheek and instantly rubbed off the dampness with a panicky hand. But the mutual hugging, the hugging back, didn’t happen again until I was nineteen, in Germany, on my gap year, with the boy who was to become my first lover.
In the meantime, I was sent to an all girls’ boarding school in the suburbs of London, an old-fashioned school where most kinds of physical affection were considered taboo. If you voluntarily touched another girl you would be instantly accused of being a lesbian. Queer was the word that was hissed in a tone of utter horror, as if it were too potent to be spoken in a normal voice. It was the Voldemort word of our generation. Once, one of the other girls offered to French plait another girl’s hair and even that was gossiped about as a sign of depravity. The rational part of me knew, even then, that this was completely absurd for a dozen different reasons. But I still felt the fear, the infectious fear of being spoken about in horrified whispers as that most revolting of things, a queer, a term which, especially in noun form, seemed to encapsulate a thousand revolting and creepy possibilities. But, in any case, I don’t remember ever wishing to touch or hug or be physically close to any of the other girls. It just wasn’t within the bounds of possibility or even imagination.
And it wasn’t only touching that was taboo but showing your body, too. Before bed and in the morning, we would wash our armpits and the ‘three Fs’ (face, feet and fanny) using damp washcloths to reach carefully underneath our pyjamas, so that no one could get a glimpse of any immodest body parts as we washed at our long row of sinks in the communal bathroom. I quickly perfected the art of dressing and undressing without revealing an inch of bare skin, wriggling out of knickers standing up, threading bras through sleeves and fastening buttons blind.
We did have one ritualised gesture of affection, though. The girls would walk from our schoolhouses, which were arranged in a semi-circle resembling a protractor around a large half-moon shaped lawn, to the dining hall for breakfast and supper and back again in pairs, set pairs of best friends, always the same couples, two by two into the ark, linking arms. I lived in Cumberland House, which was the one closest to the main school building—only a dozen strides away. The journey from dormitory to dining room took less than five minutes, even at the slowest dawdle. But still the girls always completed the pairing ritual, waiting for their chosen partners before setting out or returning, loitering outside the dining hall if their mate was taking longer to eat. It was considered a sign of pathetic social inadequacy if you didn’t have anyone to walk with. I remember a pair of twins who were mercilessly teased for walking together (“no one else likes them”). But my situation was worse. I never had a walking companion at all. I didn’t have a best friend. I stuck my chin out defiantly and walked on my own.
That long-suppressed need for touch made itself evident whenever I encountered a pettable animal. I would lavish far more time and attention on dogs than on their owners, crouching down, stretching out a fist to be sniffed, patiently letting myself be sniffed and nosed in the crotch, leaped up upon, embossed with muddy paw prints and soaked with big splashy licks. And then there was petting behind ears and baby talk – who’s a good boy? — belly rubbing until my arms ached and throwing balls and pulling on my end of a saliva-stiffened plait of rope in games of tug of war with playfully growly terriers. And if a cat sat on my lap or rubbed against my ankles, I hardly dared to breathe, not wanting to make a single wrong move and end the feeling of the warm breathing body against my legs or the soft furry scalp under my fingers. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, in considerable surprise, “Well, you really do like dogs, don’t you?” I would probably now be living with eighteen hounds on my own private island.
Later, when I met my then husband (now, many years later, we are divorced), I had a kind of instant relapse to those early days of my clingy childhood. I spent the night with him within hours of meeting – a wholly uncharacteristic act for me; I’m cautious and slow in all things sexual – but somehow he instantly evoked this strong sense of being sheltered and safe. And what I remember most was the intense feeling of physical wellbeing in his arms, not during sex, but as we lay, cuddling, afterwards. It was an incredible sensation of bliss and of being cherished, almost a kind of sensory flashback. It reminded me of the closeness I had had with my father, with the cook’s son, my first love, with my mum. As I shut my eyes after the more active physical intimacies were over and was dozing, for a moment I dreamed I was back in my mother’s arms. It was a sensation that was to return many times. Reader, that’s why I married him. But that’s another story.
My book Our Tango World (two volumes) can be found here, here, here and in Kindle format here. My book on eighteenth-century essayists, Anxious Employment, is available here and can be ordered for libraries. A selection of my political writings can be found here.