I met Tarquin through some (very posh) friends in the summer of 1996. Within two hours of us dating, he was coming up with our children’s names. He would stare at me, open mouthed, for days on end saying I was “amazing” and he’d “never met a girl like me.” My feelings for him were less certain. I fancied him when I was on ecstasy, which he would happily supply, a female Viagra that brought out the bunny in me. But I wasn’t that discriminating, I would fancy every man in the room. And when I wasn’t high, the feelings for him seemed to vanish down the loo like (so many) of my unwanted meals. But he adored me, had money, was good looking and intelligent. Surely I must fancy him I thought?
We got into hardcore clubbing, going out on Friday and Saturday night, off our heads on ecstasy. I would spend the whole weekend just dancing and drinking water and maybe eat a crisp. As someone who’s had a lifelong eating disorder, a drug that made me exercise compulsively and not eat for three days was like winning the lottery. I often had to be at work at weekends. So I would come straight in from a club, take off my bra top and feathers and glitter tattoos and change into a suit. This was fine on ecstasy, as the quantities of water I was downing were purifying in a way. But when I tried it on cocaine, it was a disaster and I couldn’t write a line. Tarquin had introduced me to coke and every time we went to a party we would immediately seek it out. If it wasn’t there we announced the party was “boring” and would leave in a huff. I had given up smoking cigarettes at the age of 25, because I didn’t want to get wrinkles. The substitution of cigarettes for cocaine seemed a healthy alternative to me.
But there was disaster between us when I was off my head on coke. I would want to break up with Tarquin and didn’t fancy him at all. I was too naïve and inexperienced to realise that I just didn’t fancy him. I soldiered on, already emotionally dependent on him, and enjoying the attention from someone who wasn’t a freak of nature or a misogynist. My lodger had left as Tarquin and I were constantly canoodling in the sitting room. He said he would be my new lodger and moved into my house. He’d just bought a maisonette in Notting Hill and was doing it up. Still innocent as a child, I didn’t think that having my boyfriend as my lodger wouldn’t work at all. He didn’t pay any rent and brought two dangerously furry cats, which caused my cleaner to resign.
When he moved in, my mental health immediately hit the skids. After spending two thousand pounds on a new double bed, I said I couldn’t share a room with him. So he was exiled to the back bedroom with the cats. They all had a lovely view of a power station. I completely stopped sleeping and when he phoned me at work (25 times a day) I begged him to leave, saying I was falling apart. He said that if I threw him out, the relationship was off. I couldn’t bear to let him go. This, at 26, was the first proper relationship I’d ever been in. So instead of calling his bluff, I shot down to a private doctor looking for something “that would put an elephant to sleep.” He gave me Surmontil and Rohypnol, the date rape drug, which said clearly on the packet you weren’t to mix it with alcohol. Still I was doing so much ecstasy I was barely drinking at all but I was so dosed up on tranquillers I felt like I was in a coma until lunchtime every day.
I had developed an emotional dependence on Tarquin and something very odd had happened. While actually 26, I had regressed to a two year old. We would call each other “possum” and “pigling” and sit around talking to each other in infant squeaks. Tarquin did mention he felt like a paedophile. I’m not quite sure what happened when I was two, perhaps it was my beloved grandmother, Doll, leaving our house. She had to look after my uncle who was having animated conversations with invisible people in his chimney stack. Either that or the fact that I’d almost died of an epileptic fit. But some kind of trauma had stunted my emotional growth. If my grandmother had stayed, my life would have been entirely different. She was loving and kind and not like my mother at all. By the time I was eight I counted eleven nannies that I could remember. Some of them left or were fired because my father got too close to them. A volcanic eruption came from my mother when I said, completely innocently, “isn’t it funny how Daddy’s always kissing Sally and pinching her bum.” I had no idea what I’d done.
From the age of three or five I’d retreated into an elaborate fantasy world with the toys. There were seventy toys and they all had their own voices and personalities. I would sit around for hours every day, bringing the toys to life, creating complex Elephant v Snoopy sibling rivalries. We had schools, hospitals, swimming pools, (requisitioning my parents’ bath), even our own Christmas Day. Although the nannies were around, after multiple departures, I knew not to get involved. My father was often in the house, as he’d inherited a lot of money and didn’t have to work. A gentleman barrister, he would pop into work at 12 and take a 3 hour lunch break at 1 o clock. I adored my father, who would take me to school every day, as he said I was “creative” and didn’t have to tidy up my room. But he was so interested in chasing women his mind was elsewhere. My mother was out of the house six days a week, working as a diplomat, a skill she unfortunately never used on me. She would return, very unwelcome, to discipline and criticize me, saying I was “useless,” although I was top of the class. Everyone around me was unreliable or unavailable. So I took refuge in the toys.
Then something happened. Even though I was only three or four stone, I started locking myself in my room screaming that I was fat. Running up and down on the spot and weighing myself obsessively 5 times a day. Anorexia at the age of seven was an anomaly in 1977 and my family blamed my mother who was overweight and kept crash dieting. It was partly her fault. At the age of six, I had woken up shocked from a dream about putting spiders on my mother’s grave. I resented her not being around and then trying to discipline me. I didn’t want to be like her at all. For a while, it just went away. But when I was at boarding school at the age of 10, the child psychologist said I’d develop anorexia again. My friend Susanna and I had already started having competitions as to who could eat less (I was the winner of course).
I took refuge with the toys again during my parents’ divorce, during which the toys also went to their own boarding schools. We were a massive extended loving family, completely unlike my own. When I was 12 or 13 my parents were behaving in such an abusive way, that I wanted to kill myself. I said to myself out loud at school, “I won’t let these people ruin my life. I’m going to do very well at school, get into the best university and get a very good job.”
After a rocky start at Roedean, I had come top of the class, despite being so depressed all wanted to do was sleep. My father said this was “boring” and was equally dismissive when I got into Oxford at 16. My mother still said I was useless and “a selfish bitch” nothing was going to change that.
The happiest memory of my entire childhood was a time I was totally alone. It was a Christmas Day I’d had with the toys, a week or two before Christmas, in 1984. The night before our Christmas Day the Christmas tree was lit up in my room for the entire night, and the least favoured toys had come down for the first sitting of Christmas Day. As I had an entire tribe of toys, there was a group of favourite toys, who talked a lot more than the rest and had extensive designer wardrobes. But this time they had to wait. Although there were so many, every toy got a present, a full stocking and a luscious Christmas meal. It had taken me weeks to prepare and the whole thing was magical.
Back in 1996, I was clubbing every weekend, taking ecstasy and cocaine, flying around the world on expensive holidays. But inside the house, I clamped myself to my boyfriend like a two year old and was getting younger and younger every day. Soon, Tarquin said, I would be an embryo. But I was getting more and more into cocaine which I thought of as glamorous, celebrity dust. So different from my childish self at 18 who’d been presented with cocaine cornucopia and hadn’t touched it at all.
I headed to Bolivia in the summer of 1988 to work as a volunteer for Save the Children, in a village called Inquisivi. In English, Dozy Llama. It was 6,000 metres above sea level on the Bolivian Altiplano. Luckily I had the constitution of a giant yak and didn’t suffer from altitude sickness at all. I also dodged an epidemic of cholera despite being the only foreigner to drink the local water. I’d had to raise the money for the trip myself as my parents had not agreed it to fund it, saying it was dangerous. I’d worked as a receptionist and dogsbody in a company owned by my mother’s friend. I was incapable of answering the phones or getting anyone’s sandwich order right. I mixed up all the filing so half the records got lost. “So you’re going to Oxford?” they kept saying to me in disbelief. “Umm,” I said not wanting to say I was clever but clueless at practical things. Before I left my parents had taken me to a psychiatrist. I was obsessed with extending my legs and was going completely nuts. Alas the relationship with the shrink didn’t last for long. He told my parents it was their fault that I was unhinged. So they boycotted him. But before I left for Bolivia, I had asked him whether he thought I would be alright. “You’ll be 7,000 miles away from your parents,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.”
I had brought a massive suitcase full of books to Bolivia, which was not entirely useful as I was working in the day and the village had no electricity. I say “work” though the job was sporadic and the woman in charge of the project had a close relationship with Campari and it was often closed. I was teaching Spanish in the school to Quechua speaking children, and working as a translator and interpreter. At night I was dodging tarantulas that kept trying to parachute onto my head from the ancient cistern of the loo. There was only one toilet in the village, everyone would go outdoors. But this was easy for the Bolivian women as they had massive skirts and petticoats that acted like a mobile toilet cubicle. The Bolivians were childlike and innocent, they would stare at you in the street. The village was idyllic, you could climb to the top of the mountains and see a puma or a jaguar. I was happier than I had ever been, for the first time in my life on a spiritual high, at one with nature and whoever created it. This ecstasy was probably connected to the fact that the only contact I had with my parents was via messages on a carrier pigeon that took 6 months to arrive.
But there is always a snake in paradise. And I got into trouble at a party when a man, (whose children I’d been playing with all day), asked me if I wanted to go to the other side of the square to have a drink in a bar. When I got there, the bar was closed and he dragged me into a church. He was a farmer and massively strong. I was struggling but I couldn’t escape. I knew enough by then not to say I was a virgin as it would have egged him on. But I begged god that violent rape should not be my first experience of sex. It says something about the dangers of travelling as a naïve teenager that two out of three of the times I’d come close to sex by the age of 18 were rape. A country woman came in and interrupted him in his quest. I called him a bastard and ran away. He continued to harass me and I had to leave.
I went travelling around Peru, and Bolivia getting close to the border with Brazil. In Bolivia, you could leave large quantities of money lying around on your bed. In Peru it was edgy, the terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso, was rife and everyone kept hassling you for money from three years old and up. I joined a demonstration in Cusco but left because I was carrying a ruck sack and saw everyone was travelling light, ready to run from the police.
While I was by the border with Brazil, I was just about to get on a flight back to the Bolivian capital La Paz when two very good looking men on motorbikes asked if I wanted some cocaine. I had heard of cocaine though never seen it of course. Without a thought about the opportunities for Grade A cocaine I was passing up, (and clueless about how you take cocaine)I said I wasn’t interested in eating that kind of snack and had a flight to catch. “You won’t be catching a flight after this,” they said, “you’ll be in paradise for days.” Thinking that this paradise would probably involve me being blotto in a bush with no trousers on, I politely declined. On my way back to the UK, the plane lost a wing in Colombia and we had to dis-embark. My finances had forced me to take a flight on bargain basement Airline, We-hope-you-can-swim. It was the height of the Pedro Escobar bombing campaign. The airline staff escorted us nervously around Bogota but we weren’t allowed out alone. When I arrived it was amazing they let me back in the UK at all. My ticket itinerary read, “Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia,” ie “I am smuggling cocaine.” If I’d taken that trip 8 years later it would have been an entirely different result.
But my lifestyle of cocaine and parties in London was beginning to pall. My ambitions to be a reporter had not died down, just had a brief nap because I was OD’ing on elephant tranquilizers. I submitted a proposal to the BBC for me to go and cover the war in Sudan, not as a freelance but as a fully paid trip. The proposal was accepted and in November 1996 I set off, very excited, for Kenya and Sudan.
Next Saturday: Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and living happily ever after with the Sudanese rebels.