This story is about the beginning of my relationship with one of the most amazing women it’s ever been my luck to know. Back in the mid-seventies, I was living in London. I was a student radiographer at one of the top London teaching hospitals. I was living in student accommodation in Bayswater, which was a vibrant community at the time. It opened my eyes; it was the first time I’d lived away from home.
Living in student accommodation, a run-down old six-story building off Queensway, was a new experience for me. The building housed a mix of student nurses and radiographers. It was an odd place to live. The accommodation was mixed, the majority female. Most of the handful of men were training as nurses; there were only two men on my course. It sounds like heaven; trust me, it wasn’t.
I was a couple of years older than most of my fellow students. I’d gone from school to college and then spent a year working to save a nest egg to see me through the almost three years of the course. Most of my companions were eighteen or nineteen and straight from school.
Like many of the people who worked in health care, we worked hard and played even harder. Remember, this was London in the mid-seventies; the music scene was exploding with the punk revolution. London was full of quirky places and even quirkier people, and I took it upon myself, as my God given right, to study, while having the most fun possible.
I’d been studying for almost a year at the beginning of this story. It had been long enough that London was no longer the magical place I remembered from childhood family trips, but not long enough that I hadn’t lost my sense of awe.
I met Gemma at a party, I hadn’t been the one invited, I was there as Maria and Rachael’s safety belt. They were a couple of girls from my course who lived on the same floor as me. Maria had been invited by a guy with whom she’d had a couple of earlier dates. She’d asked Rachael, and they’d both asked me to tag along as a bit of moral support.
As both Maria and Rachael were attractive and friendly girls, I was happy to oblige. I’d gone out with them, as part of a group a few times. The three of us had a kissing friendship that had never passed much beyond that. Friends with benefits wasn’t a concept that I think any of us had heard about or even considered at that time.
The party was in Wimbledon, a suburb of London more famous for the tennis tournament. It was at a flat that comprised the whole of the ground floor of a large 1930’s house. The party was well underway when we arrived, the music a throbbing background to the night. The music was loud and hypnotic; a DJ had set up in the lounge, which had most of its furniture removed except for a sofa that had been pushed back into an alcove.
I followed the girls into the kitchen. We gave our contribution, three bottles of cheap Spanish red wine to the host, a guy in his late twenties who introduced himself as Damian.
“I don’t have the number of the beast tattooed on my head,” he joked, and we dutifully laughed.
He added the bottles to the large collection standing on the table that was valiantly trying to resemble a bar. I quickly lost touch with the girls, as Maria spotted her date and they dragged Rachael off to the lounge and into the mass of those dancing.
I found a beer and wandered around for the next hour or so. I had a couple of interesting conversations and then danced with a girl until her boyfriend dragged her away. Bored, I grabbed a fresh beer and a bowl of peanuts and made my way out into the back garden.
It was one of those classic British summer evenings, warm and still with a hint of daylight on the horizon, even though it was almost eleven o’clock. A multitude of fairy lights twinkled in the trees at the bottom of the garden. A patio extended from the back of the building. A table and chairs set to one side. Occupying the chairs were a group of dark shapes. Surrounding the patio was a low wall. I made my way over to it and sat down, sipping gratefully from the bottle in my hand and listening to the incessant throb of the heavy bass beat.
There was the unmistakable scent of cannabis wafting over from the group clustered around the tables. I looked over at them and saw, now that my eyes had adjusted to the low light, that it comprised of four guys and a woman. They looked like your classic long-haired students in jeans and scruffy T-shirts. She was different. She sat with her back to me and my attention was drawn to the long black hair cascading down an elegant blue silk clad back.
There seemed to be quite an intense conversation going on and she was shaking her head. Then I heard her say, “What part of no, don’t you dickheads understand?” She stood up and shrugged off the hand that grasped at her forearm.
“Bastards,” she growled.
“Bitch,” one of them spat back.
She looked around and saw me sitting quietly on the far side of the patio and walked over.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?” She asked. “Those assholes seem to think if you share one joint with them, you’re saying yes to sharing everything else with them.”
I gestured to the wall beside me. “Welcome to my humble abode,” I said. “I’m Tony,” and I held out my hand.
She took it and smiled at me, “Pleased to meet you, I’m Gemma.” She sat down beside me.
We could sense the glares from the table, and I went to say something to them, but Gemma put her hand on my arm.
“Don’t bother, they’re not worth it,” she said. “The one in the black tee-shirt is the host’s youngest brother. I’ll have a quiet word with Damian later.”
She was a very attractive woman, tall and statuesque; I guess five-nine, maybe five-ten. Her skin was a beautiful shade of light coffee. Dark eyes shone out from her face, and she had pulled her long black hair over her shoulder, so it lay like a thick dark rope down her chest. She wore tight black jeans that showed off her long legs to perfection. A pale blue silk camisole top rounded off her outfit. The top hinted at the outline of her full firm breasts. I wasn’t sure how old she was, but I guessed a couple of years older than my twenty-two.
She sat looking at me, and said, “I don’t recognize you, and I thought I knew most of Damian’s friends.”
“Never been here before,” I admitted. “and to be honest, I’ve never met him before tonight either. One of his friends invited a couple of the girls I work with; they brought me along for moral support.”
Gemma looked around as though she expected them to appear magically.
“Abandoned for pastures greener, as soon we arrived,” I explained, shrugging it off.
She reached over and took the bottle from me, took a sip and grimaced.
“Christ, we can do better that that. Wait here I’ll be right back.” She stood up and gliding, not walking, made her way back into the house.
The guys at the table were still glaring at me. Obviously, I’d spoilt their plans for the night. I’m six foot one in my socks and thanks to a history of playing rugby all through school and college; I was quite muscular. I stood up and glared back at them. Beer and drugs had fortunately not made them brave, and after a few moments, they slunk off.
Gemma appeared a few minutes later, holding, to my delight, four bottles of Grolsch. She passed me two and I popped the top off one and took a contented swallow.
“So much better than that piss,” I said. “I didn’t see anything decent when I looked.”
She tapped the side of her nose, and \ it was a very cute nose. “Inside information. If I tell you I’ll have to kill you,” she said, and laughed. “Tell me about yourself.”
She was a very pretty woman, and I was more than happy to keep her company, so I spent the next half an hour explaining and answering her questions. It was a real pleasure to talk with her.
After a while, I started asking her about herself.
“I finished college last year, and I’ve got a job as an assistant at an art gallery. It’s nice because it allows me a fair amount of free time during the day to enjoy myself.”
She told me more about herself, and other than she was one quarter Jamaican, she was fairly light on her personal details, and her time as a student. She was more expansive about her job at the gallery.
“Boyfriend?” I knew I had to ask. God knows what I’d do if she said yes.
She gave me a quirky little smile, “Not really, just a few good friends. Why are you interested in asking me out?” Her attitude was refreshing.
“Err, yes,” I managed to stammer.
“Good, I was hoping you would. If you come around to the gallery at seven Thursday evening, we can go for a drink.” She told me the address, and I knew the street, I’d walked along it on several occasions. I told her yes and then for a few moments, we sat silently. She passed me a second bottle, and I took it. There was a warm buzz as our fingers touched and I noticed she slid closer to me on the wall until our legs touched.
“So, how do you know Damian?” I asked.
“I don’t know him all that well,” she admitted, “He’s my neighbor, I moved into one of the upstairs flats a couple of months ago.” She pointed to a first story window that glowed with a soft light. “He’s a nice guy and lets me use the garden and patio whenever I want.”
“Ah, so living upstairs explains the secret supply of good beer.”
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