It was supposed to be my sanctuary: two women get into a British-made taxi in New York, 1960. Photo: Getty
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“You’re a lesbian, then?” asks the cabbie. I’m not in the mood

This is supposed to be my tiny bit of luxury, a protective bubble sparing me, this once, the stultifying, sexist harassment of traversing London in the wee hours. 

“You’re a lesbian, then?” I’m not in the mood. Not that there’s any particular malice in the cabbie’s voice: I know that tone well. It’s unadulterated male curiosity.

“Yeah, I am,” I say, fighting my end-of-heavy-night torpor and attempting to sound enthusiastic about it. I know I need to do my best to make sure he doesn’t think I’m sad about being a lesbian. I’m representing. God, I hate representing.

“Why, though – why would you be a lesbian?”

It’s an unholy hour and I am, in fact, on my way home from the Lesbian Prom, an almighty dyke convention at the Scala in King’s Cross. I’ve given up on trying to get the standard 17 buses and a canoe back to south-west London, so I’ve decided to splash out on a taxi. This is supposed to be my tiny bit of luxury, a protective bubble sparing me, this once, the stultifying, sexist harassment of traversing London in the wee hours. But it turns out that I might as well have kept my coat on and faced the troglodytes. My cab driver, having picked me up straight from the venue, knows that some kind of unholy woman-love festival is going on there, and he is quizzing me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I mean, there isn’t really a ‘why’ – I just am.”

When you’re part of a minority, you must be prepared to don a mortarboard and turn educator at any given moment. It can be exhausting on a night out, when all you want to do is collapse in a cushiony pile somewhere and land face first in a Styrofoam container of culinary compost.

“An attractive girl like you . . .” the cabbie begins.

Uh-oh. I’m sure most women have, at some point, suffered that “shit, I’m at this guy’s mercy” feeling in a cab. My irritation turns to nagging fear and my fist tightens around my house keys.

“What has attractiveness got to do with it?” I say, trying to sound unfazed.

“I don’t have anything against lesbians,” he shoots, starting to get defensive.

This has gone from tedious to unsettling and back again. I’m done. I put my earphones in. But apparently I don’t get to decide when the conversation is over.

“What if you want to have kids?” he asks, loud enough so I can hear him over my Grrr! playlist.

“If I want kids, I’ll have them,” I say. “There’s more than one way to start a family.”

The cabbie looks genuinely flummoxed.

“I dunno,” he says, “it just seems strange to me . . .”

Earphones back in.

Fortunately, the cab soon stops outside my house.

“You know,” I say, as I get out, “it really isn’t strange.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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