A new year that changed me: a sexual awakening, and a lesson in loss | Alice O’Keeffe

In my family there is a before and an after: one event against which everything else is measured. The new year that changed me took place just “before”, and my memories of it have the tantalising glow of all precious, lost things. It was 1990-91, and I was 11, fresh from my first term at secondary school. My parents had been invited to stay and see the new year in with some friends in their cottage in Pembrokeshire. My sister, Jess, and I were dragged along reluctantly. We didn’t really know Brian and Carla, who were relatively new friends of my parents.

Brian sang in a choir with Dad, and was therefore associated with our enforced attendance at interminable Christmas concerts. To make an unappealing prospect even worse, Brian and Carla had two sons our age, who we just knew would be nerdy and annoying (we had concluded, after years of bitter experience, that almost all the children of our parents’ friends were nerdy and annoying).

Other than a vague outline of a stone wind-lashed house with a steep cobbled drive and an outhouse, I can’t picture the place now. What I do remember is the physical sensation I had when I first saw Will. We had just arrived, and Jess and I were huddling shyly at the kitchen table while Carla made tea for the grownups. I looked up and there was a boy, about my age, standing in the doorway. The feeling was concentrated around my stomach, and it was exactly halfway between excitement and pain.

Prior to this moment, the only similar feelings that I remember had been inspired by my daily viewings of the film Labyrinth, with particular focus on David Bowie’s purple leggings. But Will looked nothing like David Bowie. He had big, dark eyes and a full mouth, and a way of looking out from beneath his fringe. Suddenly I couldn’t remember why the holiday had ever seemed like a bad idea.

Over the next few days, Will and I became close. It was all very sweet and innocent. We played ping-pong for hours, and passed each other secret notes. Whether we were alone or surrounded by our families, I could feel a connection between us, like an invisible thread. We didn’t kiss, or even hold hands, but this was definitely something new. We were still children, but we were peeping over the wall into adulthood, seeing something we wanted to explore. As New Year’s Eve approached, life seemed to glimmer with possibility.

Alice O’Keeffe's father



‘Fuelled by an endless supply of Foster’s lager and Rothmans cigarettes, Dad was a rebel and a raconteur.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Alice O’Keeffe

That night the grownups threw a party. All that remains of it in my memory are two images. The first is not connected to Will at all: it is Dad, sitting in a chair by the fire with a fag and a beer, his customary position. Parties tended to revolve around the chair in which Dad was sitting.

He couldn’t stand up for long, because he was physically disabled, with gnarled, shortened arms and legs. He had to have major operations as a child to enable him to walk. His parents were told to send him to a “special school”, but resisted as they realised he was ferociously intelligent. By the time I was born, he had become an award-winning playwright. Fuelled by an endless supply of Foster’s lager and Rothmans cigarettes, he was a rebel and a raconteur, a truly extraordinary person.

He had graduated from Oxford after growing up in humble circumstances in Liverpool. He had run off to Morocco, lived a bohemian life in London, and worked on a film with Richard Burton. Every evening after dinner, he would sit back down at his desk to study maths and languages, just for fun.

Dad hated to acknowledge his disability. His tactic was to overpower it through sheer force of personality. After five minutes in his company, people forgot all about it, and if anyone referred to it, he did not take it well. In fact, I recall him getting unreasonably cross that night because a small child told him he had “funny arms”.

The second image I have from that New Year’s Eve is Will, at the bottom of a set of stone steps leading up the side of the house. We had stolen a half-empty bottle of champagne from the party and taken it out into the garden.

The world had turned hazy at the edges, and in my memory Will is hiding the empty bottle in a hole in the wall. I can’t be sure whether this actually happened, but I know the sense of intimacy and tipsy delight I associate with it was real.

Will and I weren’t to know, that night, that the next time we would see each other after the holiday would be at Dad’s funeral. He died of a heart attack in April 1991 – dropped down dead in the street one day while I was at school. It’s a loss that I can’t comprehend even now, 27 years later.

I seem to remember Will wrote me a card that I found bland and disappointing (poor kid – he was 11!). The invisible thread had snapped, and my journey to adulthood would take a murkier course.

Alice O’Keeffe is a literary critic and journalist and former deputy editor of the Guardian’s Saturday Review section