“Although I grew up in West London it was like living within three villages, interlinked through communal gardens. There were the lake grounds, the river grounds and the avenue grounds. I had loads of brothers and sisters around me and we were all incredibly close.
I’ve always been into community activism; it’s something I learnt from my mum. She’s the most altruistic, intuitive, giving person that I know, and early on she instilled in me the love of the stranger. Together with my sisters, we used to travel from Richmond into Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons, and one of us would always need to find a loo. There we’d meet drug users and prostitutes and have these amazing chats – my mum treating them like they were her best friends. So from her I learnt my core belief that everyone is equal.
From the age of seven I also had my church, and by the time I was 28 it was a big part of my life. I was the first project manager for the De Paul Trust, a charity for homeless teenagers, and within my own church I ran the youth group, the Alpha courses and was considering training to become a vicar.
Working for the Trust was wonderful, but the 24/7 life was pretty hard core. So after about four years I left and, after 12 months of working as a carer within the community, when I spotted a man accompanying three people with learning difficulties in my local supermarket I decided I liked the look of them; then I was amazed to find out that they lived practically next door to me. So in November 1994 I phoned them up, got offered an interview and, when the door opened to this horrible, dingy, smoky, yucky room, there… was Portia.
Literally my heart stopped: all the fireworks in the world went off. She hadn’t even spoken, and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s who I want to spend the rest of my life with.’ I did the interview, got the job, then went back to my flat and said to my flatmate, who was also in the church, ‘I’ve just met this woman and I have never been so attracted to somebody in my entire life.’
Prior to meeting Portia I’d had a few boyfriends, but had never been attracted to women. There was this one guy called Speedy who I met when I worked in the Caribbean. A self-made businessman, he’d pitch up every day and we’d go water-skiing around the islands. We had a lot of fun. But I’d never wanted to commit to anyone until Portia. Although, I’ll always have a problem with the term lesbian. Straight women don’t introduce themselves as heterosexual, so why should I? I love Jaqueline Wilson’s explanation that she’s a Trishian – Trish being the name of her girlfriend. So I would say that I’m a Portian.
When the news about us came out, all the friends I’d grown up with were delighted, but the church’s reaction was shock, then disbelief. At the time it was all too new for me to fully understand, meaning I didn’t feel I could I explain it to others. So it was with great sadness that I withdrew from that community.
It was an extraordinarily painful time, losing my church family. Especially as, for me, faith has always been about the unconditional love of God. However, 23 years later my former flatmate made the journey to see me two months before she died of a brain tumour. Finally, this opened up the healing process for me.
So life already had its shadows, but alongside this, my beloved brother-in-law, John was dying of a brain tumour. His illness meant he saw the true essence of life: which is that you have got to live it. It took me a year to get my head fully round being with Portia, and his was the one voice I really heard when he told me, ‘If you get a chance of love and happiness you’ve got to go for it, no matter what people think.’
I was heartbroken when he died, we all were, and then his death was quickly followed by my uncle and my grannie. My father died eight years later, and although we’d never discussed my relationship with Portia – he was far too Victorian for that – some things are just known and don’t need to be said. He obviously adored her, his last ever words to me being: ‘Run along now, don’t keep Portia waiting.’
We remained in London for those eight years. We didn’t want to run; we wanted to stay and form a new life. At the beginning Portia was my boss, then she left to do her social work training so I became hers. And our garden bench was always crammed with our friends with learning difficulties, their love and acceptance healing like a balm. But then, after another of my best friends, Suzy, got breast cancer and moved with her family to Dorset, and after a year of hearing them evangelising about country living we followed them.
Initially we kept our flat in London, and had planned to continue working there. After my experiences with the church, I was very worried whether a Tory-voting, beagle-hunt Dorset village would accept us: two fat ladies from London. Now, I know that Piddlehinton has an alchemy ultimately fuelled by kindness; where there’s also an approach of acknowledging difference while agreeing not to discuss it.
Tim P was the first person I met, standing at the village well. He was a lean man with a lovely black beard and soft olivey skin. For me it was love at first sight. When he said, ‘The village is going to love you. You will be fine here,’ I really heard those words – from a stranger speaking truth. And he was right, we were not only accepted but loved. When I lost my father a month after we moved in, Sara M quietly left six eggs on our doorstep and that meant so much. I soon got involved with the church, and felt welcomed by it as well. Life was gently good. Then, four years later, Suzy died when her cancer returned and, once again, it just tore me apart: losing a friend who was more like a sister and a mother to two young children, just when we were beginning our parenting journey together.
Now, aged 54, I have lost so many loved ones that I feel the spectre of death; I literally feel the hooded man. I am not frightened of it, but I know that I want to live longer. When the epidemic started, it reminded me of how I’d been watching the waters of the Piddle for months, rising then falling, rising then falling. I’d felt like I was poised, ready to be flooded; and with Covid it felt exactly the same. I feel things, I listen to people, I watch what nature’s doing. In the first few days and weeks I felt that the threat of my dying, the people I love dying, was so imminent that I was on red alert. And so I dusted off all my community organising skills and wooshed into action.
Every morning I’d wake at seven to work out what the village needed – there’s about 670 people here, and I reckon I personally know about 350 of them. I’d think about different household’s needs, I’d write lists, I’d make calls, I was a machine going mad. I began the Whatsapp group – which quickly grew to more than 70 members – and suddenly there were all these connections: John singing, Kate with her food company; The Thimble doing meals; Gay, Suzy and others making posies; villagers donating to the crisis fund; Anna shopping for isolating households. It was like this great surge of everybody coming together to do their bit. Which included, for some, staying at home – at great cost to their sense of freedom.
Everyone was expected to change their behaviour overnight, and that’s what I’ve been so extraordinarily impressed with: how everyone’s played their part. A significant part of the organisation has come through a group of five of us meeting every week to exchange ideas and organise things – we jokingly call ourselves the Cobras. Comprising Kate S, Anna S, Georgie and Alan P and me, none of us were chosen; we just came together because of our various skills.
Covid has tapped into my belief that everyone is equally important. Particularly those people usually in the margins – who don’t speak posh; who live alone; the families up on the gypsy camp who’ve now met many more villagers. Recently Margaret, who’s lived there donkey’s years, told me, ‘You know, I’ve never felt part of this village until now.’
I think that, prior to Covid, the village was about 25% actively involved, 75% not. And although it’s absolutely fine if you don’t want to join in, now it’s the other way around. And it’s shown that when we all come together it creates such a force for good.
For me, lockdown has given me the chance to do what I’ve always done; but more overtly. For years I’ve wanted to bring the community together, but not really found a way of doing it. Also, I’m a fixer who loves to organise, so I’ve found that aspect very fulfilling.
Moving forward I’d love to see this increased sense of inclusion continue. I want the families on the gypsy camp to feel a part of the village; just as I would love young people to integrate more – and finding local part-time jobs for them would be great too. With the older people, perhaps we could start a lunch club? Overall, I’d really like it to be village where no-one feels isolated, unless they want to be.
These fifteen weeks have actually been life in technicolour, for they’ve shown me that Portia and the church is not my ‘story’ any more. My story is life, and this period has been the most profound reminder that, as John said, I’ve got to live it. And I am not going to be held back by anyone’s judgement. I don’t give a flying fox. What I am going to do is spread the message: which is love and acceptance of everybody; for that’s how a healthy community works. Everyone has their part to play, whether they’re the squire or the cleaner, everyone is equal and has a voice.
Covid has also been a complete leveller. It’s out to get everybody, but it’s also out to show us how we’ve got to live: more fairly, more justly and in a more community-based way. Knowing that everyone is just as important and significant as everyone else. And that the only rule to aim for is unconditional love.”