March 31st, 2009


A midsummer night's sun

The first evidence that I was a straight kid rather than a gay kid came when I was nine years old. We'd moved to Athens, where my dad was working with the British Council on Kolonaki Square. It was the time of the miltary dictatorship, but for sheltered Scottish kids who'd never lived outside their grey homeland it was a time of Mediterranean sunshine and other mysteries.

One of these, for me, was the existence of girls. At the Edinburgh Academy there had only been boys. At St Catherines, the British Embassy School in Psychico, there were girls too. Since this was a school catering to the children of the diplomatic community, the girls were from all over the world. Rupa, my partner in Scottish Country Dancing, was Indian. There were Russians, Americans, Italians, Norwegians.

One night, in my box room overlooking the pines on the Odos Narkissou, I had a dream featuring two girls in my class, Marion and Kirsti. Marion was English, a serious, tall girl with short curly brown hair. Kirsti was Norwegian, with thin lips, pale blue eyes, bobbed blonde hair. The dream seemed to offer me a choice; one of these girls was going to become my secret special person.

I chose Kirsti after sharing a ride with her in Paul's parents' car. Paul was a rich American kid, poised and confident, always giving other children small gifts. Paul's parents had a car with huge comfortable seats, automatic transmission and powerful acceleration. Deep in the seat beside me, Kirsti was talking about the midnight sun, a phenomenon of the Arctic summer. It was something prosaic English Marion couldn't offer, so Kirsti became my secret special person.

I didn't keep the secret at all well. I doodled Kirsti's name on erasers and pencil cases, dotting the "i"s with big hearts. Alex (Russian, but brought up in America) was close to Kirsti, and began to goad me into making some kind of statement. I didn't deny liking Kirsti, but received my comeuppance when, at lunchbreak one day, goaded by jealous Paul in her turn, Kirsti stalked up behind me and gave me a small slap, as if to prove that my feelings weren't reciprocated.

Later, I remember sitting behind Kirsti and Paul in a school bus about to take us on a day trip to Delphi. Paul turned round and casually informed me: "You know how babies are made, right? The man puts his thing into the woman's thing." It seemed too outlandish to be true, but Kirsti's serious expression confirmed it. I was, it seems, the last in class to know.

That autumn we read out A Midsummer Night's Dream in class, up in the attic at the back of the building. I was Demitrios and Kirsti was Helena. I'd been slipped a love potion and worn asses' ears in real life, so the play spoke my language. Shakespeare had been there too.

When I told Kirsti all this on my first visit to Oslo in 1993, she laughed. She had no idea I'd been so smitten with her, and had no recollection of smacking my back at lunchbreak. When we met again last night at a Greek restaurant, she told me that in 1969 she'd never even seen the midnight sun, just heard her parents talking about it. Before Athens she'd lived in Sweden, too far south for such things.

After Greece -- where the regime bugged her family home, convinced her father was working to restore democracy -- Kirsti lived in Delhi, then studied piano at the Oslo conservatory, then got a degree in art history and worked in Italy for several years before relocating to the Arctic north of Norway. There she finally got to see the midnight sun for herself. She won't be coming to my lecture at the art academy tonight: Kirsti has tickets to see A Midsummer Night's Dream.