By Decca Muldowney
Originally performed by Samantha Dakin
This piece is autobiographical, and examines my experiences with HIV from two perspectives: as a child, and as a teenager. It starts with my memories of my mother, who lost her best friend Ian to HIV the year I was born. Growing up, I struggled to understand her experiences and especially her grief. The monologue reflects on my own brief brush with HIV as a teenager. Despite always being aware of HIV, I never felt that it would touch my life. Like many women engaging in heterosexual sex, I did not perceive myself as being highly at risk. In 2013, however, around a quarter of newly diagnosed people in the UK were women, almost all of whom acquired HIV through heterosexual sex. I hope this piece contributes in a small way to the conversation about HIV and women.
My mother’s best friend Ian died the year I was born. We barely overlapped. I made my big entrance. He exited. He was a young man; a singer and an actor. After his death theatrical awards were named after him, books were published about his career. I didn’t know much about all that growing up, but he was a presence throughout my childhood. Ian’s picture – black and white, in a small frame – always hung on the wall. He was blonde and good looking, staring into middle distance, somewhere above the photographer’s head.
My mother spoke about him a lot. They had been joined at the hip. She told stories about the times they spent together as unemployed actors. She made it sound romantic and thrilling, a hand-to-mouth adventure. There were tales of getting kicked out of parties for dancing inappropriately after taking too many drugs, stories of unrequited love for straight men, of amazing performances in unforgettable shows, of a wicked, cutting sense of humour. She talked less about his HIV diagnosis and his death. I could tell that my mother felt angry about it. She said things in her annoyed voice like, ‘What an idiot,’ or ‘He should have known better.’
When I was seven, I was obsessed with the musical Guys and Dolls. I can’t tell you why. Musicals are really not my thing. But then I had a favourite song that I would sing to myself again and again: ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’. I’d seen the show in the theatre where my Dad was working and begged him to buy the cassette tape for me. ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘but don’t tell your mother. This is the recording of the show that Ian starred in. It’s him singing. If she hears it she’ll get upset.’ I was baffled. My father had never asked me to hide something from my mother. I was under the impression that my parents were all-knowing, that nothing could really be hidden from them forever. I’d never seen a crack in the façade.
I was too young to understand grief. I thought a lot about what my father had said. What would happen if I told my mother about the tape? What would she do? How could hearing a song upset someone so much? Eventually my curiousity got the better of me and I told my mother. She took the tape from me without saying anything. Then she picked up my Fischer Price cassette player and locked herself in her room. I could hear the tape playing through the door, and, underneath the music, I could hear her sobbing.
Later that year my mother brought over one of Ian’s friends. He was really thin with deep, dark eye sockets. He had a heavy crackling cough. My mother wasn’t particularly close to him, had never been friends with before, but she would drive him around in her car, dropping him off wherever he wanted to go. He wasn’t around for long, and I never asked about him when he disappeared. I did notice that my mother always let him smoke in the car. That confused me. She never, ever let anyone smoke in the car.
As a teenager, I never thought about Ian, or his emaciated friend. I didn’t spend time worrying about HIV or AIDS. I knew it was problem, far away, in countries I would never visit, happening to people I would never know. It wasn’t something that could ever touch me.
When was 15, I lost my virginity to a Russian boy called Nikolai, who had only been in the UK a couple of years. I didn’t really want to do it. I just wanted to have done it. But I liked him and I liked his piercings and his leather jacket and the way he always sat with his feet up on the desk at school even though it wasn’t allowed.
For a few weeks, I psyched myself up on the bus to and from school. I would look at every passenger and think, “They’ve all done it. The bus driver has done it. That old woman’s done it. That lady with her kid has definitely done it. She doesn’t look that tough. You can definitely do it.”
The first time wasn’t great. But it turns out sex gets better with practice. Our relationship was rockier than any one I’ve had since. We used to fight constantly and break up and get back together.
One night when Nik was over at my house he told me that during one of these “break-ups” he’d had sex with a Russian girl without wearing a condom. I didn’t know why he was telling me. Was he trying to make me jealous? Was he trying to hurt me?
“She called me and told me she’s sick,” he said, “She says she has HIV.” I looked at him. We’d recently stopped using condoms when I went on the pill. His words felt like they were meant for someone else. They had a funny hollow sound, like lines he’d rehearsed. I almost laughed.
All I could think was: How could this be happening to me, with the very first person I’d slept with?
It turns out though, even all those years after I’d first heard the song, Lady Luck was still on my side. She was with me that night, and she’s been with me ever since. My tests came back negative.
After that, I thought about Ian’s friend, with his unlit fags and shaky hands. I thought about my mother crying in her bedroom. And I thought about Ian’s voice on the recording, caught in the promise of his youth, singing across time so that I could hear him. I realised I should have listened.