You asked for my story of way back then: how did I survive, how did I find strength and acceptance? How did I find love? Yes, I’ll tell you, Jenny. You’ve a right to know, and from what you’ve written to me about your life now, you need to know.
I’m including the intimate, naughty bits, because they’re part of the story, part of who Annie and I were together back then, and you need to know about that too. I don’t remember our exact words, in all cases: I’m dramatising and inventing a little dialogue here and there, because that’s how you tell a story. But it is quite a story, if I may say so myself.
In London, 1953, a horse-faced young woman was about to be crowned Queen of an Empire. I was not much younger than her, twenty-two at the time. But my rites of passage were none so genteel. Not for me nor my Annie.
I was a locksmith, which was a pretty unusual occupation for a girl. Combined with my name, Jo (christened Josephine), my short, sandy hair, combed down like a boy’s, my preference for trousers — well, I came in for no small amount of abuse and misunderstanding from the society roundabout me. I knew I was different, from childhood on. At about age seven, I recall, my friends were chattering about whose brother they wanted to marry when they grew up, and they laughed at me when I said I wanted to marry my friend Beth. As I grew older, cut my hair, and started wearing trousers outside of school, the responses grew uglier. Schoolyard taunts, confrontations with gangs of young lads who were threatened by a non-girl girl like me, fights, almost being raped once, well, I toughened up pretty quickly. You know I’m not much above five foot, but I had some muscle on me then, and I learned how to throw an effective punch or kick when I had to. And I learned that when you let a bully have his way, he’ll soon be back to push you down further. You mustn’t let that happen, if you can help it.
I’ve just made my East-End neighbourhood sound rough, and it was at times, but we all knew each other, and I think I eventually won a certain amount of acceptance, even friendship at times, from them. There was a war on, our houses were being blown to bits by the Junkers, we were sleeping in the Underground, and people generally had more to worry about than the queer girl down the street.
I’d never have made it, though, without my dad. He had an inner strength about him that I loved: he knew exactly who he was, no better nor worse than the next man, and if anybody didn’t like how he was, that was their problem. He taught me to see myself the same way. He stuck up for me with the neighbours when I wasn’t strong enough on my own. And seeing as how I wasn’t likely to become a housewife nor a fashion model when I grew up, he taught me his trade, locksmithing. I thank God for the club foot that kept him out of the army. My mum I barely remember, except from a couple of holiday snaps, and my dad’s stories. She died of pneumonia when I was five. She looked like a softer, girlier version of me. My dad loved her, I know. He never found another woman to take her place, though many’s the widow in our neighbourhood that wanted to fill the other half of his bed.
When customers came into our shop, or my dad brought me along on jobs, eyebrows were often raised at the girl apprentice in trousers. But as I said, there was a war on, men were in short supply, and if they wanted their doors fixed, they let us get on about our work. After the war, with half of London in rubble, there was a massive rebuilding boom, and consequently no shortage of jobs for my dad and me. Soon we had enough saved to buy out the business of a retired locksmith in the City, which I took over as my own shop. It was a different class of customer there — barristers’ and bankers’ offices mostly, with gleaming brass fittings and old oak panelling all over the place. Sir Toff, QC, and Lord Torybugger, and their secretaries, looking down their noses at me as though I were an unpleasant smell, all the while begging me to please give their job top priority. I had my own assistant, my cousin Jimmy, and if customers gave me any trouble about my unconventional appearance, he could scowl at them like a surly proletarian and they’d generally back off.
At first, I commuted to the new shop from our East-End home. But I was of age, ready to try living on my own; and I think my dad was maybe ready to give some of the neighbourhood widows an audition or two, with me out of the way. So I moved into the empty flat above our shop in the City, and furnished it according to my simple needs. I had, in sum, by age twenty-two, carved out an independent life for myself as an openly butch lesbian (we were called toms back then), in a totally straight, male-dominated world. Not bad, eh, Jenny?
The irony was that I had absolutely no experience of lesbian love. Now, I just said that it was a totally straight world, but that’s only in a manner of speaking. Many times, I had caught the eyes of women — neighbourhood mums, housekeepers, shop girls, aristocratic matrons, tradesmen’s wives, young secretaries: hot, frank appraisals of me that made me blush to my toes and go wet in my cunt; brushing their breasts against me or subtly running their hand over my bum as they got off the bus; turning to wink at me. Many times, I returned their gaze, with dumb hunger. Once, a posh secretary in a solicitor’s office slipped her hand into mine as I was working, squeezed it, and whispered in my ear, “I bet you do naughty things with these hands.” But when the solicitor suddenly returned, she sprang away from me and resumed her supercilious manner. I hated that woman just then, though I understood her predicament. I was butch enough to attract her lust, but by the same token, too butch to be safely seen with. And so it was, I suppose, for all those closeted women with whom I exchanged hungry gazes. Perhaps they went home and touched themselves, thinking of me — I know I went home and frigged myself raw, thinking of them. If there were any lesbian meeting places in London back then, nobody told me about them.
So, the only person who could really initiate me into this depraved, unnatural, forbidden love was a pure innocent: my sweet Annie.
So here’s where the story gets underway. With Coronation festivities about to begin, Buckingham Palace and such places were swarming with princes, dukes, rajas, and suchlike from hither and yon. But there was no room at the inn for a certain Prince, formerly the Nazi puppet ruler of a small eastern European country, chased out by the Russians, now living in Spain (I learned all this later from Annie). Because of his Nazi ties, he couldn’t be accommodated too publicly; nevertheless, he was a duly pedigreed relation of the Prince Consort, so Lord Haggis (or some such name), owner of a grand old residence in the City, stepped forward and saw to it that this Son of Royalty would have somewhere to lay his head. Moreover, because this ex-Prince had overseen some rather nasty torture and mass execution campaigns during his Nazi heyday, he was in need of protection from his countrymen. He was in need of very secure doors — not just the exterior doors, but the door to his bedroom, the door to his wife’s bedroom, the door to his mistress’s bedroom, and so on. Hence, my services were called for.
I was busy installing a triple deadbolt lock with a steel doorframe in what was to be one of the bedrooms (wife’s or mistress’s, I’m not sure), when I heard a polite cough behind me.
“Sorry to interrupt you at your work sir, but Mrs Crimmons was wanting to know if you’re likely to be finished by this afternoon, sir.”
I looked up. She was a fat, pink-faced girl of eighteen or nineteen, about my height, in the black-and-white uniform of a parlour-maid.
“Cor,” she started, “you’re not a man! You’re a girl!” She blushed even pinker.
“Last I checked, that’s right.”
“But … then why are you dressed like a lad?” There was no taunt behind it: it was an innocent question.
“I’m more comfortable like this,” I shrugged.
Her response caught me off guard. “Well, I think you look right pretty that way, Miss. Or handsome, p’raps I should say,” she smiled coyly. “My name’s Annie Blake. What’s yours?” “Jo. Jo Irons. Er, tell Mrs Crimmons I’ve got three more of these doors to do, and I shan’t be finished before five.”
Annie hurried away, but returned a half-hour later with a tray of covered dishes. “I thought you might be hungry for a bite of lunch, Jo.”
“Well, thank you Annie, but I brought my own lunch pail. I never get fed on jobs like this.”
“Are you sure you won’t try some? There’s a slice of ham-and-veal pie, new potatoes, and fresh asparagus. I just swiped ’em off his lordship’s table for you.”
“I don’t want to get you in trouble, Annie.” She shrugged, as if this was not a concern. And since she had bothered, and since the pie looked delicious, I sat down and devoured it. All the while, Annie hovered by me, peppering me with questions about myself, where I’d grown up, what it was like to be a girl in a trade, how I lived by myself. I had initially supposed she was a bit slow-witted, but as the conversation continued, I saw that she had a sharp appraisal of the goings-on in this household, and in the broader world. She was just an innocent with regard to women like me. And she had a smile that just seemed to radiate from the core of her being, warming me in her glow. After a bit, I noticed, underneath the starched ugliness of her maid’s uniform, a plump, well-developed young figure that began to stir my fancy. Well, I told myself, who says I can’t fancy a fat girl? And this girl looked quite cuddly, quite appealing, really. Her hair was a beautiful auburn, tucked up primly, alas, beneath a drab maid’s cap.
I was sorry me when she told me she had to get back to work. But her innocent directness once again bowled me over: “I’ve never met anyone like you before, Jo. I like you, a lot. Would you step out with me sometime? Thursday’s my afternoon off.”
“Annie, I like you very much too, and I’d love to step out with you. But you should know,” I winced, “if people see you with me, there’ll be talk.”
“What kind of talk?”
“Well, it’s kind of obvious to people from the way I look … I’m what you call a tom, Annie, a sexual invert: I’m attracted to women rather than men. If people see you with me, they’ll think … you fancy me.”
“They’ll be right then, won’t they,” she smiled, and sashayed out of the room, which just a bit more sway to her big hips than was necessary.
I let Jimmy handle my jobs for Thursday afternoon, and closed up the shop. I washed extra-carefully, dressed in a freshly laundered shirt, with my tweed trousers and jacket, and set off to Annie’s. At last, after twenty-two years, I was stepping out with a girl, a real flesh-and-blood girl who wanted to be with me and didn’t care if we were seen together. A girl who might even let me kiss her, if I could arrange the circumstances right.
But when I arrived at the tradesman’s entrance to the house and asked for her, the housekeeper came out instead, eyed me up as though I were a contagious disease, and told me Annie was not at liberty to see any visitors.
“But, ain’t this her free afternoon, Mrs Crimmons?”
“That is no Concern of yours. She’s in quite serious Trouble as it is, without … Characters like you entering the picture.”
Annie in trouble?! Was it about that lunch she’d given me? I had to get in there and see what was going on. But I wasn’t going to get past this pompous bulldog of a housekeeper by begging; I needed to switch tactics fast.
“Well, you see, ma’am,” I said, putting on the manner of an impatient tradesman, “I come back to check on the locks, for them new doors I put in for the Prince’s rooms, this Tuesday last. There’s a further adjustment that’s needed, and … Annie told me I might come back today and take care of it.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “Ruby,” she called to a passing kitchen maid, “do you Recognise this … person.”
“Yes, Mrs Crimmons, that’s the locksmith gal what was here the other day. Annie pointed her out to me.”
“I know my way, ma’am, no need to trouble yourself,” I muttered as I darted past her.
When I reached the main floor, I was frightened to see coppers in the sitting room (this couldn’t be about the ham-and-veal pie then, could it?), but I continued up the stairs as though I belonged there, till I could hear my Annie’s voice, arguing sharply with several men.
“It’ll go much harder for you, my gel, if you don’t tell us where they are straightaway. We’re not playing games here.”
“I told you: I never even seen ’em! I didn’t even know he had any bleeding emeralds.” I sidled up to the doorway. There were several constables standing about, whilst a ferret-faced detective questioned her. A tall, richly dressed gentleman with a pencil moustache hovered in the background.
“It’s no good, ducky. His Excellency,” he nodded to the Prince, “says you did see them. Now, am I to believe the Prince, or am I to take the word of a parlour-maid, daughter of a convicted forger?”
Her face went stony. “You can believe as you please. You can send me to prison if you choose. I’ll be in better company there than I am at present.”
I noticed that the Prince’s eyes kept travelling, furtively, to a small, elaborately carved writing desk in the corner. It was my only hope. “Were those emeralds insured, Inspector?” I asked brightly, stepping into the room. “I assume you searched that escritoire? The, er, the writing desk?” Annie started when she saw me, but kept mum.
“And who the bloody hell are you? *What* the hell are you? — begging your Excellency’s pardon.”
“I’m just the locksmith, Inspector. Security expert, you might call me, sir.”
“Security expert,” he sneered. “She looks more like an ‘unnatural practices’ charge to me.” The constables chuckled at his wit. “Of course we searched the — now see here, you –”
“If I might just have a closer look …” I pushed past him and began examining the desk. Now, being a locksmith, I know a hinge when I see one, thank God, even when it’s carved to look like part of an oak-leaf design. “Did you find this hidden compartment, Inspector?” I knocked on it, and it gave a distinctly hollow ring. Or maybe it was just my heart pounding.
The Prince stepped forward. “There eez no heeden compartment. Why do you not take her away? Take both away,” he gestured dismissively at Annie and me.
“Inspector, if you’ll look closely here, you can see the hinge, and this must be the lock. It’s very well-joined, but you can just make out the edges of the panel here, following the swirl of this vine.”
“TAKE BOTH AWAY!” the Prince bellowed. Oh yes, I’d dealt with bullies like him before. He was just at that panicky point of realising his intimidation game wasn’t working anymore, that the victims were calling his bluff.
“Just a moment,” the inspector turned to the prince, “your Excellency.” This time, the title had a sarcastic twist. “Constable Reed, would you please pry this panel open with your penknife?”
“No! I forbeed. Eet eez a very costly escritoire, Louis Quinze. Wait.” He crumbled, “Very well, I weel open.” The Prince fished a tiny key from his pocket, inserted it in the eye of a carved bird, and the little door swung open. “Ah. The emeralds are here, after all. All eez well. You may go,” he gestured towards all of us, as though we were crumbs on his tablecloth.
Annie stood up, quaking. “You bastard. You fucking BASTARD! You were going to claim the insurance money, and pin it on me. You didn’t give a fuck if you put an innocent girl in prison for twenty years, did you?”
“Now, my gel,” the detective stepped in, “mind your tongue. The Prince has admitted his mistake, and it’s best we let the matter drop,” he turned again to the prince, “suspicious though the circumstances may be. Come along now.”
Annie was still trembling; I took her by the arm and helped her out the door. On our way back down to the servants’ hall, Mrs Crimmons swept up and briskly informed Annie that she was dismissed. “Your Language, Annie, was inexcusable under any Circumstance, let alone when shouted for all the House to hear, let alone when addressed to His Lordship’s Esteemed Guest, the Prince. I will not have a gel in my House who is acquainted with such Language.” She glared at me, “Not to mention the Moral Turpitude of the … persons you associate with.”
Annie and I looked at each other, our faces bright red, both of us about to explode in rage at our “betters.” But instead we both burst out laughing, holding each other tightly, cackling and hooting till our ribs ached and tears streamed down our faces. “Moral turpitude!” Annie howled, as Mrs Crimmons flounced off.
“Come on Annie, let’s pack up your things. You’re coming home with me.”
It took Annie but a few minutes to say her quick goodbyes to a couple of friends, pack her few belongings into a small trunk, and change into civilian clothes. Her frock was plain, and a bit too tight, but compared to that parlour-maid uniform, it looked divine on her — so soft and inviting, with her thick, wavy auburn hair down to her shoulders.
We took a cab back to my flat. She held my hands tightly during the short ride. Annie gushed a lot, about how brave I was to stand up to that Prince, and clever to find the emeralds. I just shrugged and told her I can’t abide bullies; and it was a lucky guess as to the compartment in the desk. Besides, she had been pretty brave herself.
Once we were arrived at my flat, I sat her down on the settee and put the kettle on. “Annie, you’ve had a nasty shock today, and we both need a nice cup of strong tea, before we … er … talk about anything serious.”
But when we’d both taken a few sips of our tea, Annie looked me levelly in the eye, and said, “Jo, I want you to hold me, please.” How could I say no to that? I moved in beside her on the settee, taking her in my arms, feeling the soft warmth of her big breasts against my own. She nestled her head against my neck, and began kissing me there. My heart was pounding, electrifying sensations were racing through my body, delighting and terrifying me.
“Annie, you know you can stop here as long as you want, without us … doing anything, don’t you? That’s not why I brought you back here.”
`She pulled away from me. “Oh.” She paused. “You fancy women … you just don’t fancy me, is that it?” She looked down. “Is it because I’m so fat?”
“No, Annie, you’re not understanding me. I do fancy you, ever so much: I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind since I met you. I just didn’t want you to feel forced into anything with me.”
Her posture softened. “You really are too sweet and gentle to believe, Jo,” she laughed. “I’ve never met any girl like you before; but I know I want to be with you.”
“Annie, I’ve never … made love … to a woman before. I’m not sure I know what to do.”
“I’ve never either. For starters, let’s take your jacket off and you just hold me some more.” We sat together like that, without talking, just snuggling together, for several lovely minutes. “I can feel your heart,” she smiled. “Can you feel mine?” Coyly, she took my hand and guided it up to her left breast. When I began touching her breast, cupping and fondling it, that opened up our lust throttle several ticks, and soon I was kissing her on the lips, and her soft mouth opened to me, full-out snogging, as she ran her fingers through my short hair. (So this is kissing, I thought; so this is being in love: no wonder people write songs about it.) Then I felt her hand boldly travelling up the inside of my trouser-covered thigh.
“I think,” she panted, “we’re meant to take our clothes off at this point.”
I led her to my ramshackle bedroom, and, with trembling fingers, unbuttoned her frock. I fumbled with her bra, eventually unclasping it and sliding it from her shoulders, as she pulled down her suspenders, stockings, and knickers. And then, cor blimey! standing right in front of me was one fat, excited, naked, lovable, nineteen-year-old woman — with big, bouncing, pink-tipped breasts that made my jaw drop; and between her chubby thighs and roly-poly tummy, a veritable jungle of curly auburn hair. I guess I kept staring at it as she climbed into bed — at that auburn thicket, that is — with a big, stupid, hungry grin on my face, because she had to call my name twice to snap me out of the spell.
“Right, you, get that shirt and trousers off, before I rip ’em off,” she commanded. When I had pulled off my shirt and singlet — I didn’t wear bras or girlie underthings — I was pleased to see that Annie was staring at my perky little tits with some hunger as well. And when I dropped my trousers and pants, she growled, “Now get that gorgeous tom arse of yours in bed with me.”
As excited as I was, nothing prepared me for the glorious shock of her naked skin against mine. We had hugged and kissed on the settee already, but hugging and kissing like THIS — feeling the direct warmth and softness of her flesh, feeling her big, hard nipples on my ribs, running my hands over her vast, warm, quivering arse, brushing my hand over that silky auburn jungle, feeling her hands kneading my arse cheeks, fondling my excited breasts, squeezing my nipples, all the while moaning into each others’ mouths — it was almost enough to make me climax, right then and there (we called it “spending,” back then).
And then, Annie drew me on top of her. My legs found their way between her soft thighs, and she grabbed my bum, squeezing me tightly against her, till … cor blimey! … I could feel her sweet wet cunt rubbing against mine, and, lifting my shoulders up, gazing straight into her beautiful brown eyes, I could thrust and mash my slick nubbin against her own, and the wetness, and the pleasure — the unbelievable pleasure — welled up in my cunt, and spread like an earthquake through my body, in wave after wave, as I cried out her name, whilst Annie moved her big, wet arse beneath me like a cement mixer, till at last, squealing with pleasure and joy, she spent as well.
“Well, we achieved it, love,” I said, a few minutes later, in between kisses.
“What’s that?” she smiled dreamily.
“Moral turpitude.” That was the start of my coming-of-age, as a lesbian, with Annie. We lived together from that day on. She muttered guiltily at first about how she really ought to find a position in a shop, or take in some kind of work, but I persuaded her that I was earning plenty to support both of us. So, she settled happily into the role of my wife. My bare flat was soon transformed into a comfortable home. (In the 1970’s, the feminist lesbians would shake their heads sadly at our benighted butch-femme ways; but we weren’t thinking about overcoming gender stereotypes; we just wanted to build a life together.) My dad was, if possible, as delighted with Annie and her effect on me as I was. He came over often. It helped that Annie turned out to be an excellent cook. Annie’s mum visited us regularly as well, or we went to visit her in Stepney. A few of Annie’s old friends form Lord Haggis’ household maintained contact with us. Shopkeepers and neighbours started greeting us in the street. I began to feel less like an outcast and more like a part of the neighbourhood.
A few weeks after that first night, the woman who worked in a grocery near us, Jane, saw Annie and me together, and she whispered to us that we must meet her friend Sally. Well, soon we were spending evenings at Jane and Sally’s, or (more often) Jane and Sally came to our place for Annie’s good cooking, and all of a sudden we became the heart of a little lesbian community in the City. I don’t know what it was about that year, 1953, but after twenty-two years of thinking I was the only out-of-the-closet lesbian in London, I seemed to be meeting new ones, butch, femme, and kiki, singles and couples, every week.
Annie and I gradually discovered other ways of making love. Well, fingers obviously: that was immediate. Breast-sucking, likewise (my goodness, did Annie have some fantastic breasts to suck!). And sometimes, when I was kissing her about her body, I would stop and plant some kisses on her pubic mound, rubbing my nose in her silky curls. But cunnilingus — for those first few months, it never entered my blooming mind. Till one evening, I was resting my head on her thigh, gazing happily at her cunt as I stroked the lips lightly with my finger, watching them moisten and open like a flower. And the earthy, fresh cunt smell of her was going to my brain. Her sweet, fat nubbin came poking its nose out, wanting to play. And I just had to kiss it. Annie shuddered. I kissed it again. Her hands held my head in place as I continued kissing, and Annie began making noises — well, I knew what those noises meant — and my lips were getting wet from her juice, and I licked them off, and then my tongue just couldn’t stay out of it, and Annie was pressing my face into her cunt, and I had to have more of her taste, so my tongue slurped into her honeypot, and then she was spending — spending right into my mouth. We were a little embarrassed about it afterwards. But the next night, as I was kissing about her body, the urge came over me again. It came over her too, so it seemed, for as soon as I was in the vicinity, her thighs opened wide and her hands guided my head, urgently, to her cunt. This time, I dove right in with my tongue, and she kept me at it, climaxing three or four times before she was done.
When I blushingly confessed to Sally I had developed an unhealthy habit of licking Annie “down there,” she guffawed. “Unhealthy? Cunnilingus? Janey and I couldn’t live without it.” Then the book by that American doctor, Kinsey, came out, about women’s sex lives, and it suddenly seemed that being a lesbian, and licking another woman’s cunt, was no rarer, nor more unnatural, than having green eyes.
Finally, we found Arthur, and fucking. Sally’s cousin Doris, who worked in a leather-goods factory, ran a small side-line supplying her friends with leather-encased “godemiche’s”, as she called them, complete with a set of little belts and buckles for keeping the device in place, hands-free. Annie presented it to me as a surprise, for our first anniversary. She christened it “Arthur”: the head reminded her of the face of Mr Arthur, Lord Haggis’ butler.
The first time with Arthur was frustrating: it took us a good half-hour, adjusting the belts and buckles, and constantly repositioning the damned thing on me. I was worried the whole endeavour would be a big disappointment to Annie, and put a damper on our bedroom activities. But when Annie wants something, she is a determined woman. At last Arthur was finally in place, and properly lubricated (we used cooking lard!) bobbing out in front of me at the right angle. Annie welcomed me between her thighs, and as I slowly fed the big thing into her, she gasped with pleasure at the sensation of fullness it gave her. I began humping against her, much as I did when we rubbed cunts, but the in-and-out movement of Arthur (“fucking,” in the vernacular) definitely added something to Annie’s pleasure. I soon learned to get Arthur on more quickly. Annie loved how the little belts framed and set off my bare arse. She loved for me to stay deep inside her, long after she had come, kissing her and whispering endearments, or sucking at her big breasts; and often she would begin moving her lovely, fat arse beneath me again, like an underground tremor, and we would slowly resume fucking. On one of these second rounds, as I pumped into her, the sensation from Arthur’s base bumping against my nubbin, together with my enjoyment of Annie’s building orgasm, pushed me over the edge, and I climaxed with her. That night, Annie was, I think, the happiest femme wife in the world. And we were both pleased to find it was a trick I could repeat.
So, pretty good for a single year — eh, Jenny? I rescued Annie from a prison sentence, and whisked her out from under the thumb of the ruling class. She rescued me from isolation and despair. And we made grown-up women of each other.
The rest of the story you know already: how in 1962, we took in a four-year-old boy, Paul, when his mother disappeared; how Annie and I raised that boy as our own, on the strength of our love for him and for each other, till he grew up into a fine young man, your dad; how he married your mum, Alice, in 1980, and they moved to Edinburgh; how your brother Keith was born in 1983, and you were born in 1988. And now, here you are, on the threshold of young womanhood, writing to your old butch grandmum, telling me you’re gay, trying to figure out how to live your life.
My advice to you, Jenny, is to get yourself a modern silicone dildo, and a harness with adjustable D-ring fasteners. (That’s what Annie and I use nowadays: Arthur XXIII.) Those leather buckle contraptions we had in the 1950’s were a royal nuisance.
And come visit us, we’ll pay the rail fare. We haven’t seen you in two years! Give your mum a little time away from you to cool down: your dad will talk to her. Bring your girlfriend Pippa along, of course. We’d be thrilled to meet her.