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  • Nell


It's spring of 1989 and I am six years old, sitting in my friend Laura's bedroom, listening to the latest New Kids on the Block album on my submarine-yellow Walkman, wearing my cut-off denim dungarees that my mother had makeshifted for me. We didn't have much money growing up so, like many of my things, my Walkman was a hand-me-down; despite it resembling an ugly giant stapler, it was a treasured item and had to be shared between myself and my older brother. Today was my turn. I'm listening to Donnie Wahlberg singing about how I apparently had the right stuff. Of course, at six years old, I had no idea what the right stuff actually was but it sounded bloody lovely, I was sure I must have it, and I was more than willing to give it to him.

As the music blared through my headphones, I kept having to readjust them: too big for my small head, they could only be held in place by the black Alice band that loyally clung to the top of my long blonde hair.

I watched as Laura played on the floor with her Cabbage Patch dolls, who were sat around her miniature table having tea. Their chubby bald heads, covered with ill-suited wigs, and the rather startled expressions on their faces, caused them to resemble a Cobra meeting of middle-aged balding cross-dressers at the Houses of Parliament.

Dropping Dave the Cabbage Patch doll, Laura reached for her bubblegum-pink 'Polly Pocket' case, opening its small heart-shaped lock, revealing a Church, painted purple and yellow as if it was the unfortunate victim of an unsuccessful episode of Changing Rooms; the ones where you, as the viewer, secretly revel in the disaster that was once someone's bedroom but now has echoes of a brothel at Disneyland. The watchful parishioners were stuck on in the background, with their socially approving faces staring at the dutiful bride and groom, standing in the bright pink aisle, with no idea what they were about to get into.

I had saved up all my pocket money from my birthday to buy NKOTB's latest album. (Even the most unseasoned psychotherapist would be able to offer an interpretation on the fact that I always see the word KNOB in this acronym.) I spent hours listening to their songs on repeat, manually rewinding and fast-forwarding in oscillatory anticipation, searching intuitively for just the right spot...much like how I later learned to navigate men.

There was one particular NKOTB heartthrob whom I was obsessively 'in love' with. His name was Jordan Knight and, to my youthful inexperienced eyes, he looked like a gorgeous Italian man had eaten James Dean and then birthed a beautiful hybrid Adonis. (Jordan's Canadian, as it turns out, but this was my fantasy, after all.) Now, 34 years later, as I search for him on Google, Jordan Knight just looks to me like just another bloke called Dave...and I think that I might finally have a chance.

Back in 1989 though, he was like a God to me. As I stood in Laura's pastel pink bedroom, I attempted to emphatically emanate the classic 80s shoulder flicks and pendulum leg swaying of the music video, that I had memorised, whilst Laura poured tea for her politically inept entourage. I closed my eyes, and my little uncoordinated body bopped around to the music, trying to avoid standing on Laura's collection of My Little Ponies, which lay strewn across the floor as if a group of bloodthirsty homosexuals had rode in and massacred them at the Battle of Little Bigshlong.

I imagined what it would be like for Jordan and I to fall in love and live happily ever after - a dream that, despite the antagonist periodically changing, I became completely and utterly addicted to for a significant part of my life. A yearning for a romantic saviour, dressed in ripped jeans, a dirty leather jacket, and an even dirtier set of wheels. Undeterred by the fact that I was just a normal girl growing up in a tiny village in rural England, probably destined to work in accounts and marry a man called Paul, holidaying in our time-share apartment in Gran Canaria once a year with our 2.4 children. I hadn't yet learned the unfairness of life and love and still naively thought that anything was possible if you just guarded and nurtured it enough. If you just...believed.

To quote Lloyd Christmas: So you're telling me there's a chance?

Ironically, this was the same year that I discovered Father Christmas was a big fat fib, when my brother decided to enlighten me on Christmas Eve, much to my mother's irritation. A memory that remains emotionally charged and locked into place forever more, the confusion of the lie insidiously seeping into the fabric of my understanding of human nature and a reality set by others. A more expedient lesson probably would have been for my mother to sit me down and explain the suffering that would inevitably ensue should I not accept that men in ripped jeans and dirty leather jackets aren't safe havens to store your vulnerabilities and hopes for eternal happiness.

I was completely age-appropriately deluded back in 1989, lost in my naive innocence; a victim to the capitalist music industry's marketing juggernaut. I used to watch NKOTB's music videos and fantasize about being one of the lucky girls who Jordan was flirtatiously chasing around. Now, I am in uncomfortable awe at how they made women being chased through a graveyard by a group of men seem sexy, and I wonder if I have been hit by the woke parade, or whether I'm still being controlled by the patriarchy. I'm also sitting here considering if it makes me a shit therapist if I think that this is indeed sexy, which I'm pretty sure I do.

The pull of the fantasy of being rescued by a, quite frankly, hot as fuck man, as well as the inevitable Daddy issues that will have gone along with this hormonally-charged juggernaut, was so overwhelming over time, that no amount of repeat songs or posters on walls could hit the spot. I had started to crave the real thing, addicted to the high of my fantasy world, wanting to make it a reality.

So, what do you do in that situation, when you're now nine years old and you desperately want a real-life New Kid on the Block for your very own? Well, I decided to ask every boy in my class to be my boyfriend. The high quantity of potential suitors wasn't just a reflection of an abundance of nos, and a pre-pubescent girl with questionable standards, but rather because the boy inevitably realised that being 'boyfriend and girlfriend' actually meant nothing, therefore calling it off and putting me back on the market, creating a rather high turnover as a result.

I was not deterred, however. I simply adapted my dating strategy to one of shameless outright bribery, by offering packets of Rollos in exchange for commitment.   Eventually, after many hushed conversations nestled in the corner of the class cloakroom, eyes darting around to check for adult onlookers, the exchanging of goods between hands indicating a promise made...if only for a time. I'm not sure if this is the Year 4 equivalent of drug dealing, prostitution, or both. This was one of the first times I learned to exploit whatever resources I had for things of inequivalent value, and certainly my first lesson in learning that boys will take what they can get, and break their promises as they go.

Turns out you can't buy love, no matter the stakes, or how many Rollos you have.

I think that I have always tried to use lower expectations as life jackets when it came to love. My strategy had been to hedge my romantic bets, if you will, trepidatiously ascending the boy-pyramid. One rainy Wednesday, I was in my usual cloakroom spot when Wayne Baker, the boy whose glasses were held together by plasters, and who still had the remnants of his jam sandwich stuck to the side of his face, told me that he didn't want to be my boyfriend anymore. I fleetingly wondered if it was because I wouldn't hold his equally sticky little hand at lunchtime today. He conciliatorily offered me the half-eaten packet of Rollos that I had given to him only that morning, which I declined with a slight shake of the head and a slight look of disgust at the green-stained bit of tissue stuck to the toffee oozing out the wrapper's side.

I had only asked Wayne as a last resort. I knew there was now only one boy left to ask - Steven Jones: the Jordan of my tiny little world. Sadly, it turns out, Steven only had eyes for someone else - let's call her Emily, as most pretty and popular girls were in the 90s. Emily was the only girl on his radar. Not gangly, socially awkward, or gap-toothed like me. Emily was the one who all the boys ran towards during our break-time game of Kiss Chase. I was always the one who the boys ran away from. I was immensely jealous of her growing up - she was so very pretty, always had the best clothes and toys, her parents were chilled out and funny, everyone liked her and...she was the first to hit the training bra.

So, not having perfected my defeatist-I'm-not-good-enough-persona just yet, I decided that no summit was too difficult to climb. I subjected Steven to such convincing declarations of love that Atticus Finch would have been proud. However, no matter what I said, or how much confectionary I tried to bribe him with, Steven, unsurprisingly (with his healthy standards and morals) would not agree to be my boyfriend. Steven loved football, his bike, and girls called Emily.

I would cycle past Steven's house after school, on my hand-me-down bike and helmet that made me look like a giant bowling ball, hoping to catch a glimpse of him so he could see what a cool-bike-riding girl I really was. A love-addicted stalking habit that I repeated in other desperate contexts in later life. If I close my eyes now, I can still see Steven's golden gravelled driveway and dark brown wooden gable roof, making the 1950s bungalow look more like a French chalet, than the home of some poor boy living like he was in school-girl-turned-stalker witness protection programme.

In reality, I just wanted to be around him. I certainly wasn't hitting these prepubescent boys up for Dick Peeks (as they were in the 90s before the camera phone came along and evolved the traditional 'flash' into an unwelcomed phone pinging right of passage). If I had been an adult though, I would most certainly have been arrested for harassment and had a restraining order slapped on me. Or not, as is the current state of our Criminal Justice System.

Then, one day at school, the unimaginable happened. As I was hanging up my winter coat, which looked like I was off to a skiing party, hosted by Timmy Mallet, Steven walked up to me and said, 'I've been thinking. I will be your boyfriend.' That was it. No further explanation was given, obviously no cementing of the deal with a kiss or even the need for confectionery. He just walked away, and left me walking around on cloud nine...

...until gym class the following afternoon.

I was staring at him lovingly (obsessively) across the hall when he arose and walked towards me. The butterflies in my tummy were behaving as if I'd just dropped a bag of Mandy. As he got closer I gazed up at him expectantly. He towered over me, looking down at me with those big brown eyes, staring straight into mine, before saying, 'You're dumped. I'm going out with Emily now.' On that note, he turned away, and I realised that I had just been a pawn in his game, of making Emily jealous enough to agree to be his girlfriend, which, I think in all fairness, was karma biting my greedy little boy-hungry arse right in the same spot that I'd fallen in stinging nettles only the day before.

Romance, it turns out, is dog-eat-dog.

My heartbreak was exacerbated the next morning when I arrived at school to find not only Steven and Emily holding hands at the gate, but also Matthew, Steven's cousin, who was in the year above, stood there with them, waiting to tell me that no-one was allowed to be friends with me anymore. He reinforced this designated social ostracization by smashing a handful of horse shit into my face.

I walked off without saying a word, trying to hold my head high until I made it to the girls' toilets before bursting into tears. I've become an expert at not letting them see me cry but it's not surprising how much of a toll that can take on you as time goes by.

It hardens a part of you that can't ever be repaired.

Needless to say, Matthew was never my boyfriend, although tragically, if he had asked me, I would have said yes.

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