Low Expectations, Prosaic Ambitions

[Affairs of the heart, part 1]

I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl.

Billy Bragg: ‘A New England’ (1983)

I remember in school discussing with my classmates, our hopes and aspirations. Many of my peers had ambitions such as being footballers, forming a rock band or setting up in business, becoming successful and rich. When it came to my turn I just said something like “I just want to settle down with a wife and a couple of kids”. Some would giggle, some would politely nod and a few would smile sympathetically. I confess my ‘ambitions’ were utterly mundane.

But it was true. From reaching puberty when I started secondary school aged 11, I was pretty much constantly in love. It wouldn’t take much, a friendly smile or a girl laughing at my childish humour — then I’d become besotted and totally obsessed. I must have scared many girls.

That fixation with looking for love and romance continued throughout adulthood and in between relationships. I really never took rejection very well. I was extremely insecure and this increased when my friends were forming relationships or just casually ‘copping off’ with girls. Insecurity is never a good look and it must’ve been very off-putting, but whenever I was rejected I immediately blamed my misfortune on the fact that I was disabled. Obviously it’s a big factor — but on reflection I’m sure it wasn’t the only one.

I remember from a young age my mother would tell me in her forthright way not to chat up girls because “they wouldn’t go out with anyone like you” — talk about destroying my confidence! Mother was very blunt, but I don’t think she was being deliberately cruel, I think it was her way of trying to protect me from disappointment, albeit in an insensitive and crude manner.

On Valentine’s Day my school friends would swap cards and I was invariably left out. I remember one day a card was dropped through the letterbox at home with my name on it. I opened it with great excitement, but this quickly evaporated when I recognised the handwriting belonged to my mother! Despite these setbacks I never stopped pursuing girls in the hope that one day I would find my soulmate.

I remember my very first kiss was with a girl called Margaret, when I was about eight years old in the second year of my junior school, Dovecot Primary. Maggie was some three years older than me, which was a massive age gap when you’re that young. I can only vaguely remember her, but she seemed tall [mind you, everyone did to me], very pale and had shoulder length mousy brown hair and [possibly] blue eyes. Our kiss really was a clichéd moment ~ hugging and giggling behind the bike sheds. It was such a long time ago but I think that was the only time that I kissed her. However I remember asking my parents if Maggie could come to our house for tea one weekend and surprisingly they agreed. I recall that we watched on television a really old film called ‘The boy with green hair’ and throughout the film I sat on her knee. Mother very much disapproved of this and told me off — but thankfully she waited until Maggie had been driven home by my father. Maggie left for high school soon afterwards and we never kept in touch — I don’t know what happened in her life after that brief encounter, but she is probably a grandmother now.

I had many mates at school, both girls and boys; the girls were literally just friends and part of the gang. In the first TV documentary I’m in, my friend Lesley Clarke is pushing me in my wheelchair to class. We were just really classmates, but we were close friends and I was also made welcome in her home, playing games with her and her siblings. Again, I lost touch with her when we went on to different secondary schools. I didn’t have any proper romantic encounters until I was about 13 and the school went on holiday to Colomendy in North Wales, which is a large educational and adventure camp in beautiful countryside, which hosts schools from all over Merseyside. I met a girl called Tina, Tina Burns [or possibly Burton? I forget) from a different secondary school and we got on really well and I was instantly smitten. She liked me too and we innocently kissed and held hands in the nearby woods. We were both quite sad when we boarded our respective coaches to go back home but I gave her my telephone number and she said she’d be in touch [her family didn’t have a phone — this was not so unusual for impoverished areas of the UK in the 1970s].

The following saturday afternoon my parents were out shopping and I was in the house with my eldest brother John. The telephone rang and John grumpily said “it’s for you” and I quickly grabbed the receiver from him. It was Tina calling from a public phone box. In a slightly panicky voice she said something like “ My money is about to run out, here is the number, can you phone me back?”. No sooner had she read out the number when the pips began and line went dead. My heart was racing and I quickly dialled out, but it was the wrong number! Oh why didn’t I have a pen and paper!? I tried lots of permutations of the number but to no avail (the ‘last call return’ feature wasn’t available back then). I even rang the telephone operator but she couldn’t give me any numbers for public phone boxes. I was frantic, I hoped desperately that she would ring back. But alas she didn’t. Maybe she tried to get through and it was engaged while I was trying to work out the number, maybe she thought that I didn’t really want to speak to her. I lost total contact with her forever. Over the years I wondered what became of her, how her life panned out and when the internet arrived one of the the first things I did was search for her, but time eroded my memory and I wasn’t sure about her surname. I never found her. Oh well it wasn’t meant to be.

My first girlfriend was Shirley. We were both 13 years old and Shirley had long dark brown hair, brown eyes, fulsome lips and her body had all the curves and bumps in the right place-or at least it seemed that way to my adolescent self. Genuinely it wasn’t really about love or lust with Shirley, she was a beautiful person inside too. Throughout our friendship we never had any arguments and I can’t even remember disagreeing with her about anything. In short she was fun to be with, we laughed constantly and I valued her friendship greatly. I said ‘girlfriend’ but really it was mostly platonic and entirely innocent but she was certainly the first girl that I actually fell in love with. Our friendship began when my younger sister Liz came home from visiting her classmate and friend Beverley. She handed me a note in a lilac envelope with ‘Kevin’ written on the front.

The letter, composed in blue biro on lined note paper, said something like “hello Kevin, I’m Shirley, Beverly’s older sister and I believe you like Queen too? Bev told me you have the Queen II album. If you would like to come round to ours then maybe we could listen to it together? Love from Shirley x x x”. I had never met this girl before, I had no idea what she looked like but my heart was racing. Beverley acted as a go-between and I arranged to go to Shirley’s house tomorrow afternoon. I was in panic mode, I can’t let her see me like this ~ two weeks previously I had a fall in those damned artificial legs and fell flat on my nose, hitting the concrete in the school playground. A horrible dried scab had formed where the skin was grazed and the blood had congealed. I looked in the bathroom mirror and I peeled it off and I breathed a sigh of relief, as it came off cleanly and left no visible scar. I suppose it was ironic that being a typical teenager, I would worry about trivial things like scars, spots and greasy hair rather than thinking about my lack of limbs!

I went to her house in my battery car and I was full of anticipation and excitement. She only lived about two miles away with her mum and sister Beverly. Her mum had divorced her husband who was a copper, but she kept the police house, which was a small but quaint 1930s semi. Shirley had an older sister and brother but I can’t remember meeting them, so I think they lived with their dad. We played records in her front room where she had a small mono hi fi set up. I was made very welcome by her mum and Shirley and I hit it off instantly. I felt totally relaxed in her company. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted only a few years, but they were joyous, carefree, innocently youthful, halcyon days.

I only visited her house a few times, because she walked round to my house regularly. I saw her most weekends and most nights. During the school weeks she would call around about 6.30pm and we’d go into my room where we played music on my Panasonic music centre or we’d watch my small TV [yes, I was a spoilt kid, materially anyway] ~ both sitting on my single bed, leaning against my headboard. It was very cosy but not much else. I just relished being with her. As my fondness for her grew I would sometimes tentatively put my hand on her shoulder. She didn’t flinch. Eventually I got braver and casually stroked the nape of her neck. Sometimes we’d kiss each other on the cheek or on rare occasions fleetingly give each other a small peck on the lips and she’d giggle and flash her gorgeous smile. There was genuine affection from her but that was about it really when it came to intimacy. I often wondered, when our friendship sadly ended whether I should have, could have, been a bit bolder. But being brutally honest i was scared of her rejection, but also terrified it would ruin the great friendship that we had. But there was a major obstacle to any kind of romantic relationship — my protective mother! At precisely 9pm she would knock on my door then walk in without waiting for an answer and politely but firmly say “It’s 9 o’clock Shirley, it’s time to go home!”. This occurred every night until our friendship ended when I was fifteen — talk about a passion killer! i know she was being protective of me — and also perhaps of Shirley, who would walk home in the dark nights. but as a teenager i felt she was being over-protective, especially because i was disabled.

[I’m often quite harsh when i write about my mother and as i write this [it is 12th October] i’m very conscious that today would have been her birthday. Mum was born 93 years ago on this day, but she died in April 2017 at the grand old age of 88. I know that I have a lot to thank her for, not least for not abandoning me in hospital when i was born. She was instrumental in making me the strong person I am today.]

Left pic: Mother aged about 14. Right pic: Mother aged 87 holding my son Oliver

Back to Shirley…. Even though our relationship was very innocent and mostly platonic we did flirt quite a bit, but in a fun way. On rare days that we couldn’t see each other for whatever reason she would send me little notes, passed on by the ever obliging sister Bev. Her notes would be just general adolescent stuff; what she got up to in school that day, arguments she might have had with her mum, shows that amused her on TV etc. She always signed off with lots of kisses and she’d write on the back of the envelope S.W.A.L.K. I always replied to her letters in the same way. I treasured her letters until we drifted apart.

I did a sponsored swim in my mainstream secondary school, along with the other Thalidomider kids who were there with me — we raised money for the N.S.P.C.C. and Shirley had come along to support me. I swam on my back and she strolled along the side of the pool smiling and cheering me on. I can still picture her in my mind now. I swam a mile and a quarter in total. I did have an actual photo of her that day, plus a few other photos of her collected over those few years, such as the time she helped decorate my bedroom. We removed the childish wallpaper featuring steam trains and WWI bi-planes and she painted the woodwork wearing a red scarf on her head and very tight white stretched woollen top, and looked totally gorgeous. Sadly i’ve lost all photos of her — apart from one extremely faded photo from the time we larked about in a photo booth, I balanced on her knees as she sat on a low stool that revolved. Happy days.

Mother really liked Shirley and began to trust her, so much so that we were even allowed out together. In those days I didn’t have an outdoor power chair — I had the battery car but that had limited mileage and was far too big to go on a bus or train. So for longer journeys Shirley would push me in my wheelchair. We'd often get the train to Southport or go into Liverpool city centre. We had a lot of fun times but I can only vividly recall two wonderful days out. The first was catching the train to Southport and we spent the day in the famous old fairground. Shirley insisted I went on as many of the rides as possible. I was very much a lightweight in my teens and she was tall and quite strong, so lifting me on and off the rides was no problem for her. I remember we went on the big wheel and she knew I wasn’t great with heights, so when we were at the very top overlooking Southport beach she kissed me briefly and said “well done”. I even remember the light cotton pale blue dress she wore, which was see-thru in bright light. After the excitement of the big wheel she suggested the big dipper. Absolutely not! I protested. I told her to go on it and i’d wave to her when her car passed. Then we got a big bag of chips [or French fries for our American readers]. After the chips she spied the Waltzers. “Ooh come on Kev!” she pleaded holding my hand. Oh dear god no! I thought, watching the curved seats whizzing and twirling around. But I gritted my teeth and she excitedly put me in the seat. Ignoring me, the ride operator asked Shirley, with some concern, “Will he be okay on this?”. “We’ll be fine!” she smiled. “You’d better hold me tight!” I shouted over the music and the now moving machinery. I used to suffer car sickness and this was a thousand times worse. The operator kept spinning our seat more than the others [or so it seemed to me] and Shirley shrieked with delight and squeezed me tightly. I just groaned. When we finally stopped my head was still spinning and I felt dizzy. But things got even worse. The ride operator gave us another free go! When Shirley lifted me back into my wheelchair I leaned over the side and promptly threw up my chips. We laughed about it later. It was a fun and memorable day.

Throughout my childhood and early teens mother insisted I go out with a blanket over my lap. I began to resent this very much, especially going out with Shirley. Mother would say that it was to prevent me getting cold, but this was absurd since i never took it to school and I survived the playground without freezing to death. Later my older sister told me it was because mother was trying to hide my impairment — but this is absurd too as my feet were hidden in my trousers, which were sewn up at the ends. I’ve always been self conscious about exposing my feet. But some Thalidomiders have no choice as some were born without any hands at all, thus they would use their feet to drive their power chairs for example. It’s simply down to individual preference.

The blanket was dark green with a tartan pattern and mother would always say “don’t forget your Scottish blanket!” before I went out. As soon as I was away from the house I would get whoever was pushing me to chuck it over the back of my chair. But on the other more memorable day out with Shirley the blanket become very useful. We were in the city centre, feeling peckish but without any money and we were a bit bored. So for the first — and only — time in my life we shoplifted a ‘family pack’ of crisps! This wasn’t just any shop [as the advert might say] — this is a certain well known department store. Shirley shoved it under the stupid Scottish blanket and pushed me outside very speedily. Once we were out of sight of the store we guffawed boisterously as we chomped on our ill-gotten potato goodies.

The good times were sadly not to last. Shirley was growing up fast, from a beautiful young girl to a stunning young woman and her budding breasts were expanding, she naturally attracted the attention of other males.

Her first proper boyfriend was a seventeen year old [she was now fifteen] who had recently passed his driving test and his dad was lending him his car to take Shirley out. “You’ll like Steve, you’ll get on great with him. I’ve told him all about you” she announced! I tried to look interested but inwardly i felt utterly despondent. Steve [not his real name, I’ve forgotten it anyway] was going to take her and me to Chester zoo that weekend. “Don’t you want to be on your own with him?” I asked. “No! I want him to meet you. We’ll have fun together, just the three of us” she declared. I smiled weakly but was racking my brains trying to think how i could get out of this but i couldn’t — and anyway i was far too curious to see what this guy was like. He was tall [much taller than Shirley], light short brown hair and clean shaven. He looked much older than seventeen I thought. He was a pleasant enough young man, I had to admit and he tried to engage me in all the conversations, but I hated every second of that day. They took it in turns pushing my wheelchair around the damn zoo. I totally resented Steve pushing me- that’s Shirley’s role! I thought angrily.

The drive back home was tortuous — I was seated in the back of his dad’s Ford Escort and Shirley sat in the front next to her bloke. I noticed they were actually holding hands! Jealousy raged through me. Oh why didn’t i just declare my love to her before she found this wet lettuce! Shirley turned towards me and smiling sweetly she asked “are you okay?”. I just stared out of the back window and said flatly “I’m fine”. When I looked forward again I noticed they had stopped holding hands.

When they dropped me off back home at the regulated 9pm curfew Mother said “he seems like a nice boy”, “yeah” I shrugged. But inwardly I was screaming “I felt like a ****ing gooseberry! It was like a married couple taking out their child!”. I went to bed depressed and imagined what they were getting up to without me.

Anyway Steve didn’t last long with her and she quickly moved on to another bloke [I forget his name too]. He didn’t drive and I saw Shirley less and less. I certainly never played gooseberry again. I missed her nightly visits and our weekends going out. Shirley one day told me that her latest beau had managed to get tickets to see Queen at the Liverpool Empire. They had now become a mega band with their record breaking best selling single Bohemian Rhapsody released a year earlier. Mother angrily confronted Shirley and her bloke and asked why they didn’t get me a ticket, knowing thatI was crazy about the band. I wanted the floor to open and me drop in it or at least swallow my mother up. I’m sure poor Shirley felt the same. She flushed bright red and muttered something about no wheelchair access [which was perfectly true at that time] and Mother replied “Well we’ll see about that!”.

Mother was nothing if not resolutely determined. Through a contact she had at the Liverpool Echo newspaper she got the Empire management to give me two complimentary tickets for their gig on 3rd June 1977. Anyway I ended up going with a much older male cousin. We were let into the venue 20 minutes before the doors opened [guitarist Brian May was tuning up and he gave me a wave]. My cousin lifted me into a seat with a great view at the front of the stalls whilst the manager folded up my wheelchair and took it away. In the interval my cousin nudged me — we spotted Shirley lining up for an ice cream. Thankfully she didn’t notice me. I genuinely hoped she was having a good time.

[I had an amazing night. It was my first ever rock gig. I even met the band backstage after the gig. I remember they were a polite bunch of lads, surprisingly Freddie Mercury was quite shy, not the flamboyant bon viveur showman that he was on stage.They all signed a big glossy programme for me, the white cover of which was the same as their ‘A Night At The Opera’ album. It was full of pictures and band info. — the quality of programmes in those days were far superior, not the usual flimsy adverts or sponsor-laden rubbish you get nowadays at gigs or theatrical plays. Then a year or so later I got into punk bands like The Clash, also bands like The Cure and then later on The Smiths etc. As young people often foolishly do, I decided that glam-rock bands like Queen were an embarrassment and I gave the programme away to a neighbour who was another Queen fan. Ah well, I still have the memories.]

Shortly after this we moved house to a different part of Merseyside and I lost touch with Shirley. I went to college and made new friends and of course fell in love again. and again.

Epilogue:

I finally left home at the age of 22 to live independently and my first home was as a temporary resident in the staff quarters of a hostel ‘for the mentally handicapped’ (as it was called then) run by social services [this will be part of another chapter coming soon].

Feeling bored one afternoon I decided to phone Shirley to see how she was doing. She was still living with her mum and still had the same number. I hadn’t seen her for about seven years.

Things had changed though. Shirley told me she would love to see me ~ she had loads to tell me and could she bring her boyfriend with her? “Of course you can” I said as cheerfully as I could. Oh and she was seven months pregnant [my heart sank] but I said “wow! That’s fabulous Shirley, congratulations!”.

Shirley waddled into my flat. Apart from her large belly she looked more or less the same, she hadn’t really aged at all. The boyfriend was wearing black leather trousers and jacket, long greasy hair and unkempt beard. He seemed quite moody. I barely spoke to him, but when I did he just responded by grunting. Okay i'm being unfair to the Neanderthal but that was how I was feeling. Despite everything it was good to see Shirley though, sort of. She flashed her bright smile. I was sitting on the floor leaning against the sofa. she obviously couldn’t bend down to kiss or hug. She flopped down into the armchair to my right. He slumped down in the opposite one. It was quite a strained meeting. She had no idea why I was living in such a place, nor why I had left my extremely comfortable Mother’s home. Shirley had no idea of learning difficulties [I was only just getting used to the situation myself really] and she was very nervous being there. Every noise Shirley heard coming from the main hostel would startle her and she looked anxiously towards the door. “It’s okay, they aren’t allowed to come in here, unless they’re invited” I said to reassure her, but she was still nervous. I suddenly felt sad, the bubbly effervescent fun Shirley was no longer there. I hoped she would be happy. I hoped that ape would treat her kindly. I was sure she would be a great mum. They didn’t stay very long and to be honest it was a relief when they left.

I was feeling very low but almost immediately there was a knock on my door. It was Amanda, the officer-in-charge of the home, carrying a bottle of red wine and two glasses.
[You can read what happened next in Chapter 2 of Affairs of the heart that I’m posting soon]

About two years ago my wife Angela and I were in a local café with our daughter Daisy. The table next to us sat an elderly lady with a couple of friends. She turned to me and smiled and said “Hello Kevin, you don’t remember me do you?” — this often happens to me [for some reason I’m always recognisable!]. I just smiled and said hello. “I’m Shirley D__’s mum”. “Oh wow! er… how are you? How is Shirley?”. She told me that Shirley got married and had three children. I already knew this as my sister Liz [who had emigrated to Canada over twenty years ago] had still kept in touch with Bev. Her mum also told me that Shirley was “𝑖𝑛 𝑎 𝑏𝑎𝑑 𝑤𝑎𝑦” with Parkinson’s disease. “Oh I’m so so sorry, please give her my love when you see her” I replied genuinely saddened “I will love”.

My sister Liz flew over to see us last Christmas as the pandemic lockdown had temporarily lifted. She told me Shirley had sadly passed away.

R.I.P. Shirley — a truly good friend in my youth.

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father, husband, socialist, atheist, humanist, Evertonian, disabled, contrarian. kevindonnellon.com

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Kevin Donnellon

Kevin Donnellon

father, husband, socialist, atheist, humanist, Evertonian, disabled, contrarian. kevindonnellon.com

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