September, 1993.

A world before mobile phones, satnavs, or social media. Only the earliest glimmerings of the Internet existed.

I’d recently done my A-levels, turned eighteen, and left school. My plans to work abroad for a gap year before university had fallen through, followed by my back-up plan and the back-up back-up plan also collapsing into recession. Eventually, I’d been accepted for a scheme with a multinational engineering firm.

Spending a year before university doing computer programming for electronic engineers in a suburban office didn’t sound very exciting, but it would pay well and look good on the CV. For two further reasons, it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.

Firstly, there were 80 students around the country, based in two small cities a few hours apart. Starting with an intense training month, we all got to know each other incredibly well, both in person in our own towns, and on weekends, the guys in the other locations. It was a great change, suddenly going from an all-girls school and my rural dependence on my parents to drive me anywhere, to both having a social life and being able to organise it myself.

I was never cool in school. I had my group of friends, and the cool kids didn’t dislike me, but I was definitely considered a nerd. Geek, I’d say; geeks are nerds who wash! I couldn’t really dispute being a geek; ending up coding and planning to read Engineering at college was proof of that, even before anyone found out about my loves for science fiction, that defunct TV series Doctor Who, and this new author called Terry Pratchett who was so more than the mere fantasy writer critics dismissed him as. But it was worse thanks to me being severely deaf.

One-to-one, I can understand people pretty well, lip-reading them with support from my hearing aids, though if they don’t have English as their first language, or if there’s background noise, my comprehension can plummet to zero. So in a group, I’d be unable to follow jokey conversations, especially at the cool noisy parties, or anywhere with music playing, and this meant I came across as even more of a geek than I was. Am.

When I said guys on the gap year, I meant guys. Men. Eighty students; only eight of us women. That’s Engineering for you. As my fabulous school Physics teacher had said, when she was at Imperial College in the Sixties, she might have been the only woman among four hundred lads, but she’d never had to buy her own lunch. Her prediction for the mid-Nineties was that I’d have maybe three other girls in my lectures, but I’d always have to buy my own lunch!

This sudden move to a mainly-male environment, a year earlier than expected, was quite a shock. I’d been shy at school, and I was terrified of boys even without my inexperience of dealing with them.

But that didn’t really matter, because I was convinced I was gay.

I’d repressed that as much as I could — Section 28 and the general local feeling made it imperative — and I got much better exam results than I might otherwise have done, but in all my life it had only been women who turned me on at all. So I was pretty sure men wouldn’t do it for me.

And suddenly at least 50 lads were trying their hardest to persuade me otherwise, interested in talking to me, all very politely, friendly, but hoping for more. Despite Mrs Mottisham’s predictions, they were all very generous at buying us girls drinks!

I was a perfectly pleasant-looking 18-year-old, but nothing out of the ordinary — dark blonde hair, long and slightly frizzy, average figure, average breasts, often mistaken for other women. The attention did wonders for the ego and my confidence, I have to admit, especially as, for all their bluster, they were a nice bunch of rather awkward guys. That’s geeks for you. So given that, I slowly started to consider whether I could be at all interested in any of them.

The second reason why this programme was such a great choice for me was that, thanks to an early version of instant messaging, we could chat during work to the guys in the other locations, or even just across the office. The attention was intoxicating, but the messages were even better. It got rid of the isolation from me being deaf.

I was in a mainstream school and aced it academically, but whilst I was OK socialising with a couple friends at a time, any time meeting new people at parties or anywhere else loud, I couldn’t handle it. I’d come across as an idiot and never catch anyone’s name. I love conferences, where people have name badges! But suddenly, for the first time, I could chat just as easily as anyone else, dazzling them with my wit rather than repeatedly pleading for people to repeat things and being told ‘never mind’.

I loved it.

The messaging program was called Say. So we could type SAY and someone’s staff number (and soon, a nickname instead), and a message. Or SAY ALL, to chat to all the students.

Suddenly I could join conversations on an equal footing. Better than equal, as I could type quickly and accurately in a way most of the lads couldn’t. That program on the BBC Micro Welcome Disk, KEYBRD, had got me touch-typing from an early age!

I revelled in being able to make quick interjections and well-timed sarcastic comments. I could even be the centre of a conversation and conduct multiple private conversations at once without getting mixed up.

Like an air traffic controller, I could juggle all my chats and never accidentally crash a comment into the wrong dialogue.

KAREN: SAY ALL Takes one to know one!

KAREN: SAY ALL that’s what she said…

KAREN: SAY ALEC so what did she say to that?

BEN: SAY ALL Karen ha bloody ha

ALEC: SAY KAREN nothing. Pretty sure she’s not interested.

TOM: SAY ALL Can’t fool Karen that easily Ben!

Of course, when discussing our online conversations, it was obligatory to put on the hokiest cowboy accent one could muster. “Say, Karen, that was one mighty fine put-down you shot that dude Ben with! You go, pardner!”

It was interesting who else loved the message system. Some of the coolest guys in my office didn’t use it much — their typing was slow or they just didn’t see the point. They claimed to be too busy, of course. Some tried creating very different online personas, but found they couldn’t keep them up. Soon I could identify anyone by their writing style alone.

Some people had embarrassing moments when they sent to ‘all’ rather than just who they’d meant; I never did, even when I was carrying on six private conversations as well as the general mass chat filling up my screen. No scrolling nor colour-coding in those days; once the screen was full you hit Enter and it would clear to be filled again.

Obviously, being a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, people flirted. By the time initial training was over, two of the other three girls in my Southern centre were paired off. Two girls from our Northern base, south of Manchester, had boyfriends from home already. Of the other two women there, one was a very loud lesbian of the stereotypical PE teacher type, so repulsed me completely.

I’ve never been into sport. School PE usually involved me skiving off, hiding; mainly to do something useful like homework, but also so as to avoid teachers shouting abuse. They said I was a useless fucking spazz, back when that was acceptable language to use at kids. I do have what we now call mild physical disabilities, only really noticeable when forced to do sport.

Sometimes I wobble when walking, and sometimes my arms and legs jerk a bit and won’t do quite what I ask. I’m safe to cross a road, though it won’t always be elegant, but I’m clumsy. People would accuse me of being drunk when I wasn’t, or, back then, simply call me lazy (my mum, various teachers) and crap (PE teachers and other girls at school who resented me being assigned to their PE team, ruining their totally meaningless scores for half an hour).

The last girl on our programme, Annie, was pretty quiet. Self-contained, I thought. She had made it clear she wasn’t going to go out with any of her colleagues, much to the boys’ disappointment.

She was petite, with dark chestnut-brown hair and loads of it, and she hit my boxes completely. I really, really wanted to touch any part of her pale skin. I hadn’t really got much beyond that as a plan. I’d snogged a few boys over the last couple years because it was socially expected, but I was sure there would be ‘transferable skills’ there, as all our tutors emphasised the importance of.

Not that I had any more hope of chatting her up than the lads did. I didn’t really have any experience in the matter. While I might enjoy looking at certain of my schoolmates and teachers, I’d never dared do anything about it. In any case, I’d known my mates since we were eleven or younger — thinking about doing anything with them would be like doing it with my sister! No way!

In the couple months since leaving school, I’d managed a few daring smiles at cute women in Camden. Once, I’d got one back, with a “Sorry, I’m taken, gorgeous!”

That really was about it.

I’d tried to get Annie to come down to us — just beyond Reading, really, not that far — for a party before and failed, but I felt I owed it to both of us to try again. Maybe she was just shy.

KAREN: SAY ANNIE Come to our house party this weekend! You can get a lift from Steve or Davy?

ANNIE: SAY KAREN I could. I’d drive by myself though.

KAREN: SAY ANNIE How come? Why not save the petrol?

ANNIE: SAY KAREN Three hours in traffic of them trying to seduce me? I think not.

ANNIE: SAY KAREN I keep turning them down. And they keep wanting to know if I’m gay. It gets wearing.


I kept typing.

KAREN: SAY ANNIE Cos if so do you want a date?

Don’t know what came over me, but for once my fingers had moved faster than my brain, and had hit Enter.

There was no taking it back.

I refreshed the screen to clear away my rash words, before anyone could look over my shoulder and see the evil green messages.

The seconds before the reply were some of the scariest in my life.

I spent that evening hoping she really had installed the update to negate the previous ‘update’, which had copied all private messages to my housemate Charlie, so we could all have a laugh each night. Data Protection law hadn’t been written yet!

We’d stopped bothering after a couple months and then ‘fessed up, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone on the programme — my housemates Alec or Charlie, most likely — was still somehow listening in occasionally.

The screen refreshed itself with only one line of lurid lime text at the top.

ANNIE: SAY KAREN OK. What’s on at the cinema near you on Friday night?

It took some arguing with said housemates that I wasn’t going to be around for much of the Friday night party, as Annie and I were going to see a movie.

It might have been the fact that we were going to watch a Merchant-Ivory film that they found hard to believe. Apparently I didn’t look like the costume-drama sort. ‘Not middle-aged,’ Charlie said.

Certainly, no-one even considered it might be a date. Such things just weren’t on people’s radar back then.

Annie arrived shortly after I’d got home from work, declined a cup of tea, and we set off to walk across town to the cinema. It wasn’t that we were really historical drama fans; nothing else was on and it looked like we might both have a fondness for Helena Bonham Carter.

Her finger traced my hand as we tramped through autumn leaves. In the park, no-one around, I got to hold her hand. This was the early Nineties — a much scarier time for anyone queer. She smiled at me and we got chatting in person, properly, for the first time.

I decided I definitely liked her. We got tickets and ice-creams and sat in the deep plush velour seats. She offered me a bite of her ice-cream and I took her spoon into my mouth, sucking it. She laughed and let me do the same with her finger as the lights went down. The film captivated us for a while as we held hands, stroking skin nervously in the dark.

After an hour or so, the plot got slower. I wanted to kiss her and leant over as far as I could, hoping she might reciprocate.

She sort of responded, but I could feel her holding back. Possibly her heart wasn’t in it, more likely her head let ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’ and she was too scared, especially in a new-town suburb where fights outside pubs were typical Friday night entertainment and beating up dykes would be an exciting extra. Though as the film dragged on, she got more into the kiss.

By two hours in, she was certainly enjoying herself as much as I was. She even put her hand into my hair and pulled my head towards her, to deepen the kiss into a powerful snog, to which I was very happy to acquiesce. Once the film ended, we left hand-in-hand until we noticed crowds on the street, triggering us to reluctantly but urgently separate our palms. She gave me a big hug as we got back to mine, and a peck on the cheek which she then changed into a brief snog, but claimed she had to get home.

Still, a successful first date, I thought.

Except that she never came to any more parties and didn’t really socialise with the lads on her scheme. Her messages to me were first apologetic, but over the next month simply dwindled away to nothing, occasionally citing an increased workload. She had friends near where she lived, so I suspected she was too scared to go out with a woman, certainly one who was a colleague.

I never saw her again.


By this point, late October, I was about the only single woman left on the gap year programme. I had to admit, I hugely enjoyed the attention — most of the lads were decent guys, too shy to be too obnoxious, too geeky to have an ego problem — and generally very happy to have me as a friend, though several made it clear they’d love more if I happened to be interested. I didn’t think I was.

There had been ones that had piqued my interest; the one with the seductive Scottish accent who had rapidly proved boring and had rubbery lips; the one with an Irish accent even more seductive, but too much of an alcohol problem even by UK student standards.

But, given that women were going to be a wash-out for the next year — practically all the staff of the company were male, with the exception of a few grandmotherly secretaries — I started to consider in earnest whether I could be interested in men.

Might it be possible?

In particular, there had been the very good-looking and lovely one — Ben — who had clearly been dithering between asking out me or my friend Delia, which had caused both of us much amusement when pointed out by everyone else.

Eventually Ben had made a move on me. I’d turned him down, solely because he was stupidly drunk at the time. Possibly, also, a bit because I knew about his swithering between me and Delia for weeks, and that half the guys had bets on the outcome.

I’d then nudged Ben towards Delia despite the fact we were all about to move in together — they’re still happily married, twenty years later! When Ben had shrugged off my disinterest and did immediately end up in a relationship with Delia (Charlie and Finn split their winnings with me, gained from my insider information!), I realised I wasn’t upset at all, and decided very rapidly that his style of intense romance would have annoyed me intensely. We got on well though. The three of us had found a cheap but solid house to rent, and two other guys to share it with us.

Ben wasn’t a stupid boy, much as he pretended to be a daft type from the Welsh Valleys. He had rapidly clocked that I rather fancied Delia, as well as himself to some degree, so had even tried to persuade Delia to try kissing me or more, despite my insistent protests that she wouldn’t be interested. Luckily, she found all this hilarious, so she and I had much fun over the next few years flirting outrageously with each other, mainly to wind the other guys up.

A lot of students thought it would be appropriate if I got together with Charlie, who shared a room with Ben in the house we rented. The online chat buzzed with their excitement. Delia and I each had our own rooms; Delia’s condition of moving in as part of a ‘house couple’ who had only been together for three weeks. A remarkably sensible woman, Delia.

Charlie was a pleasant chap, and very good-looking, all tall, slender and elegantly dark, but just didn’t do it for me.

I soon twigged that one reason for that was that Charlie was homophobic — in the sense of absolutely bloody terrified, rather than disgust, not that that made me feel much better.

He’d only found out about the suggestion we get together long after I’d made it clear to all and sundry that said plan was never going to go anywhere. He’d been amusingly horrified. I’ve never been quite sure whether that was because he thought I might have been interested, or because I wasn’t and he would have been!

Over time, I got chatting a lot with certain lads, some during our coffee and lunch breaks, others online. My efforts straining to hear people meant that I ended up in lots of one-to-one conversations, often out in corridors or kitchens or other secluded spaces. Which added grist to the rumour mill, where I was linked with almost every chap going. But it also meant I found out who was secretly gay, whose gran was dying, who was being treated badly by their manager, who was struggling with their workload.

We spent much of our working hours using Say to organise our social lives. As one of the top users of Say, I put in much of the effort into ensuring there was a party every weekend, in one city or the other, usually in a shared rented house; occasionally at the homes of the few lads who had particularly obliging parents. And large houses.

I’d never thought of myself before as a party person, but I now revelled in these nights where I never lacked for male attention. The lads were clearly competing with each other to be as charming to me as possible. I got the impression my housemates — Ben, Delia and Charlie, anyway, though possibly not the fourth — were looking out for me, to ensure no-one took advantage as I accepted all the glasses of wine, the cocktails, the liqueurs… Mrs Mottisham really was totally wrong about men not buying for women!

The other housemate, Alec, had repulsed me when I first met him, but then persuaded me and the others that he was merely a gregarious larger-than-life personality who would be fun to live with. He was, generally, but somehow we sensed actually our first impressions had been correct. We concluded his ‘life and soul of the party’ was all an act, especially when he went quiet, claiming to be taking ‘a holiday from his personality’; what anyone else would call sulking.

The four of us became wary around him, sensing that his japes like picking girls up over his shoulder and running off with them weren’t actually funny, his jokes suggested he didn’t care about a woman’s consent, and he generally had an entitlement complex — resulting in a huge strop when none of us felt the need to contribute to his car’s repairs. After that, we left him alone in his room at the far end of the upstairs corridor.