This is a memory that’s slowly re-surfaced. What’s prompted me to tell it now is having read a load of stuff about the gay squats in Brixton in the 70s and early 80s where I lived there from 1979 to 1981. A wonderful place: keen gardeners had landscaped the back gardens of about a dozen houses that backed onto each other, and we’d drop in on neighbours via the always open back doors. Our house was frequently visited because we accommodated the community’s twin tub washing machine.
It was probably spring 1980 when Auntie Alis, as Alistair was known, came home from the clinic in a foul mood having discovered that he had secondary syphilis. We sympathised with him and he showed us the rash that accompanied it, saying that the clinic had said it was atypical of syphilis, but undoubtedly part of the syphilis.
A few weeks later I developed the same rash and trotted off to the clinic, none too pleased about the prospect of the penicillin injections. I had the full STI workover but I didn’t have syphilis. The doctor was mystified and gave me some calomine lotion, telling me to come back if it didn’t clear up in a week or two. The rash went after a while and I thought no more about it. I don’t remember the details but my boyfriend and I fell out with Alis and his boyfriend and they moved out.
Skip forward to the late eighties and I was in the Coleherne (I practically lived there when it was a leather bar). A friend and I were chatting and browsing through Capital Gay when I noticed a photo of Alis: the headline read something like “noted gay activist dies of aids”. Okay, we hadn’t spoken in years and our last words to each other were angry, but it was another guy dead and we had had some good times (no – not like that!) before we fell out. In those days you were going to at least several funerals a month. We developed the custom of going to funerals not in suit and tie, but dressed for the bars, the feeling being that that was usually how the deceased knew us, so attending a funeral in full leathers was a sign of love and respect. But I digress…
I don’t know when it was that I first saw a photo of the rash that can be part of seroconversion illness, but I recognised it instantly: it was the rash I’d had shortly after Alis had had syphilis. So the obvious conclusion is that I picked up my little passenger in 1980, 33 years ago at the time of writing this, so I’ve lived with HIV longer than without it.