Thursday, 8 September 2016

Bag of nerves

When I lived in a bed-sit in Paddington, London, in the early 1970s, when I was twenty something, I encount-ered the most nervous woman I've ever met. I never did find out what was bugging her.

I can't remember how I met Tanya, but one evening she came round to my bed-sit, and from the moment she arrived she was physically trembling. I said she seemed nervous and did she want to tell me why?

She said it was too painful to talk about and she'd rather not say. I tried hard to get her to relax. I thought if she relaxed a bit, she would open up. We had a few cups of coffee, and we chatted, and she told me she was a nurse. She was still trembling, still unwilling to say why, but it was clear she wanted to go to bed with me.

I said I wouldn't feel right having sex when she was plainly very agitated about something. Maybe she thought sex would be somehow reassuring or soothing, but I wasn't happy about it. I felt I would be taking advantage of someone in a state of desperation.

I thought she might try to seduce me by kissing me or taking her clothes off, but she didn't. She accepted my reluctance and eventually said goodnight and left.

I was none the wiser about her extreme nervousness, and still am as I never saw her again. She vanished as mysteriously as we had met.

Sometimes I try to fill in the blanks. Had she been attacked? Raped? Bullied? Humiliated in some way? Deeply shocked by something? Had she witnessed a horrific car crash or a violent death? I'll never know. But something had had a very dramatic, very disturbing effect on her.

Forty years on I'm still puzzled by that lingering question mark of an evening.


  1. Definitely a bit strange, but I think you made the right choice.

  2. That is an odd story, Nick! Probably best that you kept it platonic.

  3. Dave: Definitely. I'm sure what she needed wasn't sex but a good friend or a therapist to talk through whatever was preying on her.

    Bijoux: It was all very odd. Something had really got under her skin but she didn't want to confide in me.

  4. There's no way of telling if a good friend would do it or if she needed a professional. You did the right think by being friendly, spending a bit of time with her, and then having her leave.

  5. Jean: I was disappointed that even after trying to provide a "safe space" for her to open up, she still wasn't able to. I hope she got the help she obviously needed.

  6. Did you at least put your arms round her?


  7. Ursula: I didn't, but I should have done. I guess I thought she would recoil, but it might have been just what she needed to let her guard down.

  8. Yes, Nick, you should have. But all of us can only react in ways within our realm.

    I do believe in the power of touch. I touch all the time. Not by design. A sort of reflex. Usually just an arm, a shoulder. Anything to connect, to reassure a person of my affection, my sympathy, my attention, even if during a fleeting encounter with a stranger. I instinctively feel that so many people are starved of touch. Not least the elderly. A couple of years ago this tiny old man I'd sometimes seen at our corner shop started talking to me. We talked and we talked - and some more. Then he got up on his toes and kissed me on the cheek. Like a butterfly.

    The story as you tell it is intriguing. One of many possible explanations that in her traumatized state she literally just wanted a hug but knew no better than offer herself for the full deal in order to get the comfort she was looking for. Maybe she just needed a bed for the night. Who knows. Can't imagine it's a good memory for you. Yet, do take comfort that someone thought you the right person to turn to.


  9. Ursula: I believe in touch too, and I often touch people as an affectionate gesture. I also think many people are starved for touch - and physical contact generally. I love it that the Northern Irish are very keen on hugs and kisses when meeting or parting.

    It could well be she thought the "full deal" was the only option available. And yes, it's good to know she thought I was someone worth turning to.

    But you're right, it's a troublesome memory because I wanted to help her and I couldn't. I wasn't able to win her trust.

  10. A very odd situation indeed. Obviously something had upset her and she wanted to talk about it but hesitated for some reason. Nuts.

  11. Ramana: Oh, I wouldn't say she was nuts. I'm sure she had good reasons for not wanting to confide in me, and I wasn't able to persuade her to let it all out.

    Some people bottle things up for months or even years, never trusting anyone to listen sympathetically or be non-judgmental.

  12. That is one of the strangest things I've ever heard. I can't imagine what was going through her mind at all.

  13. Hattie: Just one of the many weird experiences in my life. Perhaps I should have tried harder to find out what was going on. Then I wouldn't still be scratching my head 40 years later!

  14. Goodness, that was a very odd thing to happen. I wonder if she had decided that today she simply must lose her virginity but didn't know how to go about it so thought you might like to oblige. And then having decided to do it, she was really worried about it.

    It doesn't sound very likely but there again, the whole thing sounds unlikely!
    The other thing might be I guess that she might have taken a huge fancy to you on sight and decided to have a relationship with you but her courage was failing her and making her do it all wrong.
    Well.. no, let's face it that doesn't sound convincing either. So I'm baffled too!

  15. Jenny: All sorts of possible explanations come to mind, but the truth is lost in the mists of time. There may be little details I've forgotten that would make a bit more sense of it all.

    I don't think she was desperate for sex, just desperate for an emotional refuge. But she wasn't convinced I was the right person to open herself up to.

  16. May be it was just a performance. I have a friend, when she was a student she always starts to cry when she found herself near a boy she liked. The guys were always embarrassed and I found it quite ridiculous. You should not torture yourself in supposing what she wanted. You will never know and in some way she was not fair in behaving like she did and not explaining why. In French we say ' un acte manqué'!
    Mia More

  17. i'm late to the party once again.
    but it gives me the opportunity to read all the other comments always!

    i am inclined to think like jenny woolf... she might have been incredibly shy enough to tremble because she had a great crush on you and finally got up her courage to come and try to seduce you. she had to have a reason for her trembling so she said it was too painful to talk about.
    then when you were kind and sensitive enough to not take advantage of the situation she could do nothing but leave!
    perhaps she is even now telling about the time in her life that she loved a young man and finally went to his place and failed miserably in getting him to make love to her! :)
    that's the story i would prefer!
    and it might be very plausible.

  18. Mia: An acte manqué? I don't know, she seemed pretty genuine to me. But you're right, I shouldn't torture myself trying to make sense of it all.

    Tammy: I wonder, was it just crush-inspired nerves? Maybe. But why not just say she was nervous because she fancied me like mad? If so, I hope she found an equally fanciable guy asap and the messed-up evening with me was history.

  19. the more I think about it the more I think that might really have been it nick!
    nowadays that reason would probably never hold water. women are very bold now. almost bolder than men I think!
    but when we were young it wasn't so much the norm for young women then to be rather forward that way.
    at least it wasn't for me. the guy still lead the way.
    I was even taught that you NEVER should call a guy! can you imagine?
    although it WAS the swingin' 60's! or even early 70's maybe.
    the very beginning of the sexual revolution.
    many girls weren't tuned into it yet like they would be today.
    she probably gained more confidence as the years went by.
    I can see how the mystery of it all might stay with you!

  20. Tammy: I think you might be right. As you say, dating was much more ritualistic and man-led in those days, and the convention was that men always made the first move and the woman followed. So yes, she might have been quite petrified at the idea of seducing me rather than the other way round.

    Indeed, who knows, if I met her today, maybe she'd be totally brazen and drag me into bed at top speed!

  21. I suspect she was actually disturbed by something horrid and thought sex would be comforting (or that offering sex would be a way to get some comfort)
    Heaven knows, she wouldn't be the first to go that route.

    And if she was horribly disturbed, I would say that a little extra effort on your part would have revealed nothing at all. It could have taken many weeks or months of gradually building trust before she could even consider telling you her story

  22. Well, she obviously liked you, I reckon.... but it's worrying that she vanished after the event.
    Maybe she was hiding from someone or something?

    P.S Have you tried Googling her name - if you know her full name?

  23. Kylie: One possible explanation. Who knows what was actually going on? You may be right that if she had had a really dreadful experience, it could take a long time for her to trust someone enough to confide in them.

    Scarlet: She vanished and never made contact with me again. As far as I recall, she didn't leave me any contact details. And I didn't know her full name so google won't help!

  24. She needed comfort and security but what comes across to me is that you were both too self-conscious and uptight to confide in each other - you your limits regarding physical intimacy - hugs OK, sex no and her in some terrible confusion and distress no matter the cause. Neither of you breached the barrier. Sad. But it happens.


  25. www: Very true. We were both inhibited and hesitant and couldn't break through that nervous barrier. If one of us had just had the courage to hug the other, that would probably have broken the ice.