Singled out for a life on the margins

SECOND THOUGHTS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A funny thing happened after the rugby. I had just watched Wales being defeated by England and was standing in the foyer of the Royal Hotel in Cardiff, innocently minding my own business. It was that time in the evening when the Welsh start having trouble keeping their drink in their stomachs, and I had taken refuge in the foyer because a man had just fallen on top of me when I attempted to climb the stairs.

Suddenly, a man of about 6ft 4 lurched over to me and asked if my name was Jaci Stephen. When I replied in the affirmative, his eyes filled with hate and he shouted: "You were always throwing me out of the library at school - you and that other girl!" I tried to soothe him - after all, we were talking about 22 years ago.

I should have been flattered that he still recognised me after such a long time, but I found it all rather depressing. To listen to him, you would have thought I was the school bully, the pupil who everyone wanted on their side, the one who had life sussed at 17 and wasn't going to let anyone stand in her way once she walked through the school gates for the last time.

I stayed in the foyer as he walked away, consumed with all the self-consciousness, embarrassment and loneliness that I thought two decades had suppressed. I remembered hiding in the library, too distressed to go through the ritual humiliation of team-choosing on the games field when, no matter how well I had done the previous week, I was still one of the last to be picked. I remembered the dread of walking into the classroom when "Bridget the Midget" hit the charts, and I remember the numerous other references to smallness that haunted my childhood.

The reality is that I was the pupil always hanging on the edge of other people's gangs, desperate to be wanted and included. I wanted to be part of the group who, when Top of the Pops visited town, mitched off school to go and meet Tony Blackburn.

I wanted to be one of the girls who went to the Ranch fish shop at lunchtime and giggled with boys on the lazy walk back to school. Most of all, I wanted to be one of those girls who got spun on the waltzer by the man who ran the ride.

The girls who were given the extra spins on the waltzer were the same ones who went to Top of the Pops and the Ranch chip shop. They smoked in the school lavatories at break and cheated in exams. They never did their homework and were rude to the teachers. And they made everyone who wasn't one of them feel like hell.

To be spun on the waltzer, you had to be a certain type of girl; but I was never able to work out what type that was. It certainly wasn't one who, at the age of 17, still looked about 12.

Other girls of my age were allowed to go to the Sixth Form Dance. Ralph Hillier said there was no way he would let me in because I didn't look old enough. My friend Shelley went to the dances and even had a choice of partner to go with. Chris, Steve, Jeff - they all wanted her. Shelley had a minute waist and large breasts.

When we went to the fairground with the Sunday School, Shelley was almost orbited into space, so keen were the men on the waltzer to give her a good time. My own breasts, held together by something little bigger than a doily, might as well have been lying in a morgue for all the action they ever saw.

If you have never been part of the "in crowd" as a child, the chances are that the feelings of non-belonging induced by that isolation never go away. I have a good life compared to most people in the world - a blessed life - but why am I not one of the people sitting with a group of friends at Parliament Hill on a hot summer's day, popping wine corks and eating strawberries?

Why am I not one of those people on a boat, sailing up the Thames at Christmas, shrieks of laughter hitting the late-night air and a kaleidoscope of silly hats lighting up the greyness?

Why am I never one of those people with a group of friends who hire Caribbean villas or ski chalets and go on holiday together? And why do I envy warmly lit basement flats on a winter's night, where four people sit around a large oak table?

Life always seems to be elsewhere, and even if you have good, loyal friends, this is a feeling that most people experience at some point in their lives. This is especially true for those who are not in a steady relationship.

We live in a society in which couples and family life are constantly being held up as the ideal, and the single life is perceived to be something that nobody in their right mind would pursue by choice. To be single these days is to be a voyeur of other people's lives, always on the margins, wondering whether you have got it right.

Twenty-two years later, I am still handing over my money, stepping on to the waltzer and praying that the man will give me an extra spin. Knowing that he probably won't.

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