The female gays lived in one of the houses whose gardens backed on to their own back garden.
The female gays had a painting in their front room on the wall behind the TV, quite a large one with no frame, of a zebra with its head turned over its shoulder, green and gold colours round it, and archways, like cloisters or when buildings have arches, whatever that’s called, and a hill, fields, with a round sun. The painting was a real painting done in paint on cloth, nailed to the wall through the cloth. Next to the zebra it had a figure with no clothes on with its back to whoever was looking at the picture and its arm up over its head like someone in a shower or someone stretching in the morning after a night’s sleep; it wasn’t clear what the person was, male or female, or rather it was possible that the person in the painting could be anything.
The female gays had cable, her little brother’d told her, because he’d watched The Simpsons through the female gays’ front window. They hadn’t minded a nine year old boy with his nose against their window watching their TV through it. In fact one of the female gays, when they realized he was there, had come across the room, rearranged the curtain so he could see better and even opened the window so he could hear too, and when the programme was finished they’d all three of them waved goodbye through the window to him.
The female gays were quite young. Well, they didn’t look old yet. What they looked was – she couldn’t think of the word. If you were in the garden or the patio and the door was open and they were in their garden you could hear them talking and laughing, or sometimes hear the music they played.
The female gays was what their mother called them, like they were a species on a wildlife programme. Female gays on our doorstep, her mother said to their stepfather, usually over supper. She said it every few weeks. She said it like something specifically to be said above the heads of children having their supper, heard and not heard, specific but at the same time actually unspecific, words aimed at them and meaning something else, meaning that something wasn’t as it should be. She herself was almost not a child any more, she was practically thirteen, soon enough. She was working on a way to leave the house without anyone knowing she had, to come and go as she pleased through the skylight window in her room, for the nights when her mother told her to go to her room or else, which happened quite often because it was hard not to disappoint her mother. The less childlike version of herself was working on this. The more childlike version was working on perfecting a way to travel round the neighbourhood by never touching the ground with her feet.
The female gays was what their mother called them, like they were a species on a wildlife programme. Female gays on our doorstep, her mother said to their stepfather, usually over supper.
The female gays, when it was sunny, did what nobody else in that neighbourhood had ever done, at least not that she knew of, not in her lifetime, which was that they opened their front upstairs window of their house as far as it would go and sat reading books on the top of the downstairs bow window like that bow window was a kind of miniature balcony. There were all sorts of reasons you weren’t meant to do that, according to her stepfather, to do with the structure of a house. One day when she was out on her bike she saw one of the female gays out sitting in the sun in that upstairs window. She slowed her bike on the pavement, stood on the pedals and smiled up the broadest smile she could as she cycled underneath. The female gay up there saw her and smiled back down at her, right at her. ! She cycled past again later the same day, this time with no hands, cycled past whistling a tune with her hands in her pockets, but there was no one in the upstairs window any more, well, it was supper time. She went home. Her mother shouted at her, she’d got oil on her cuff, on the turn-up on her jeans. She said to herself, inside her head, I am seeing the world in a different way, one in which oil on my clothes just isn’t a problem to me. She didn’t say it out loud. There were a lot of things she knew not to say out loud, for instance that there was no way she was going to be an accountant or a doctor or the things they kept deciding she would be. She was going to be a painter of sets for theatres. She already knew this. When a couple of years later she did say this out loud, what her mother and stepfather said back was that it wasn’t a proper job. (It was, though, because in the future she actually became it and saved for and bought a house with the money from it.)
The female gays was also the reason – specifically that phrase, and specifically the fact that her mother couldn’t or wouldn’t use the word lesbian for the women who lived in the house at the back of theirs – that she would tell, out loud, a couple of years later, when she was fifteen, a girl she was in love with at school that she liked her, and then specify this liking quite clearly as a love, which in turn would lead to five years of very real love, at a time in life when five years was a lot, became a quarter of a lifetime, and the night she’d know it, know she’d be about to do this thing, she’d be sitting out on the roof next to her own open window in the July moonlight, the sky a deep flat, its blackness thousands of miles above her being unexpectedly leapt across by the shooting stars that sometimes happen at this time of the year. A fast star, look. Another. All the houses round her in darkness, the windows in darkness on what was once the house they lived in (they’d have moved by now, that house would have been split into two flats with nondescript other people living there now) and she’d be transparent to herself sitting there gazing up, the sky and its stars, back down to those windows with the words in her head for the people who’d once lived there gone into a future,
the female gays.