The Lost Photo

Ages and ages ago I was tagged for two memes – one from Chartroose to plug the title of the most recent book I’d enjoyed into google images and post the four best images I found, and one from Emily to describe the best photograph ever. My instant thought was to combine them into one post in which I found four cool photographs and described them to you, because I have to confess that although I’ve been blogging for more than two years now, I have no idea how to post a photo. The ones that make it onto this site are uploaded by the domestic computer support team (aka, my husband) and his patience won’t stretch to four together. Alas, I have yet to find four images I really like and could usefully describe, despite repeated searching, and so I’m returning to Emily’s meme for today and will attempt to tell the story of, perhaps not the best photo ever, but one that I’m sorry to have lost.

For a long time I carried around in my bag a packet of photographs that were special to me; ones of my family and friends and iconic moments from across the years, a picture of my studio flat in France, a snapshot taken at the ripest point of my pregnancy, and a few I’d kept from my childhood. Amongst them was a photo taken by an unknown hand in which I’m pictured, aged a mere 18, sitting alongside my date at a formal dinner in Cambridge. At some point when I changed bags I managed to misplace this packet of photos and they fell into the domestic Bermuda triangle, whence they have yet to return. But the memory of that dinner photo and everything that led up to it remains vivid in my mind because it represented the one time in my life when I treated someone poorly in love. If you can bear such a sorry, gruesome tale, read on.

So, like many an undergraduate arriving at Cambridge university I came from a very small pond in which I had been a big fish. I was prepared to struggle socially, but I was looking forward enormously to the work, particularly the chance to really get stuck into the study of literature. Of course the only thing one can be sure about in life is that it will not fall out the way we anticipate. I found it remarkably easy to make friends, but the work, on the other hand, was a living nightmare. I was taking joint honours in French and German, which meant huge quantities of work, the level of which was a staggering step up from anything I’d done before. Language work was particularly atrocious, not simply because it was hard beyond all reckoning, but because it took place in classes that were an exercise in group humiliation. Until the day I die I will be haunted by the image of Professor Nisbet, clutching the sides of the lecturer’s podium as if rehearsing for what he might do if he ever got his hands around one of our pitiful, ill-informed throats, and asking, in the kind of uber-polite tone that Nazi torturers probably used to emphasize their vast superiority over their victims: ‘Would Ms. Best please like to read out the next line of her attempt at the translation, with ALL the mistakes left in.’ Then I (in my miserable third person) would dutifully read out what was still legible under the red ink. Anyway, the worst of all these classes was a subtle discipline of unimaginable horror entitled ‘French prose’. It consisted of translating into accurate and stylistically pleasing French a passage of English written by one of those slightly old-fashioned canonical greats – Lawrence Durrell, Aldous Huxley, Henry James – the kind of author whose labyrinthine sentences are not exactly crystal clear in your own language. The first passage I was given for homework came from George Orwell’s Animal Farm and I have never been able to look at that novel since. Needless to say, it was a disaster. For the next few weeks I crossed a bleak minefield of French literary language, broken by the past historic, scarred by the subjunctive and lacerated by the shrapnel wounds of a thousand misused idioms. Something had to be done.

And so the bright idea struck me that I could approach one of the second year students at my college for help. I asked around a bit in the bar and lo and behold, a young man made it known to me that he would be happy to do some coaching. We’ll call him M. I went around to his rooms the following week, clutching my dreaded homework in my hand and he sort of did it for me, while I watched and absorbed the right technique and was profoundly, humbly grateful. You can see where this is going already, can’t you? In a few weeks’ time, M. started to call on me more regularly and not so very long after that he declared himself by pressing into my unwilling hands a little scrap of paper on which the words ‘Je me suis épris de toi’ were written. Naturally, I couldn’t translate them. I hated to fail him by admitting as much, and so I endured a painfully confusing conversation until finally I got rid of him and rushed to my dictionary. For once the dictionary came good: épris, e (ptp de éprendre) adj (frm) (d’une femme) smitten (de, with), enamoured (de of) (littér). So in terms more suited to an eighteenth century man of letters, which is to say wholly appropriate to the archaic atmosphere of Cambridge, M was professing a burgeoning romantic interest in me. Oh, bugger! I thought. I mean, he was a nice person, and obviously clever, but I didn’t feel that way about him at all. And my love life was complicated enough. I had a boyfriend back home from whom I was slowly extricating myself in order to start seeing another undergraduate who I’d recently got to know. The obvious thing to do would be to stop meeting with M., but my God did I need those homework sessions! Barely a term into my Cambridge career and already I was hooked on the drug of learning support. I couldn’t possibly date M., but I didn’t feel able to abandon the morphine of his help.

And so I fell into one of those strange compromise formations, in which I continued to turn up with my French proses and we continued to work together and I tried to say as little as possible that could be construed as definitive. Oddly enough this worked out okay, as M. liked to have long conversations with me of such allusive complexity that I rarely knew what we were talking about anyhow. This seemed to be a feature of my time in Cambridge. Not only were the majority of lecturers impenetrable, but even when I was being chatted up by male undergraduates, I couldn’t figure out the half of it. I did wonder whether the accelerated learning of two foreign languages had somehow screwed up my capacity for comprehension per se. And I also wonder whether the longing for clarity didn’t contribute to the more serious affair that I was beginning with a tall, blonde engineering student who had startled me one evening in the bar with the most entertainingly petulant chat-up line ever. We’d been friends for a while when he blurted out: ‘Everyone thinks we’re going out but I’m getting none of the perks!’ I wouldn’t suggest this to the love-lorn out there as the best approach, but at least I understood what he meant. For those of you who have been around this blog for a while, you might recognize that distinct discursive style. Yes, dear readers, I did marry him, but that was a long time off in the future and a story for another day. So, I digress. I did my best to hold M. at arm’s length and to appear romantically unavailable. I wouldn’t answer my door to him when he came around to call and endured all manner of little notes pushed underneath it, some featuring an Egyptian style eye with a lone tear snaking away from it. How could I be so heartless? Alas, I was eighteen and being pursued by a man I wasn’t interested in and it was all somewhat irritating. But still I appeared in time for my prose tutorials, which must have been confusing. Ms. Best, when you’ve quite finished mangling one of the great lines of lyric poetry, I crown you the Queen of Mixed Messages.

I can’t remember now how it came about that I accepted the invitation to the Catholic Society dinner. M. was trying to convert me religiously as well as amourously, but frankly he had more chance winning me over to the merits of the future anterior. I didn’t like to think of it as a date, although I’m sure M. did. I must have had one of those bizarre girly equations going on in my head whereby this was a sort of repayment for the hours he had spent helping me out. A charity date, perhaps, if such a ghastly concept exists. But I do know I was dreading it, and wondered a thousand times how come I had agreed to it, and berated myself for not being able to just pull out a comfortable margin ahead of time. By this point, however, I had passed that critical juncture where the option of saying ‘no’ has receded beyond a distant horizon. It didn’t look like plain old ‘no’ any more, but like ‘I reject your being’ and ‘I have been wasting your time’. As it turned out the evening itself wasn’t too bad – the company was jolly and the food was good. But I promised you a photograph a long time ago, and towards the end of the evening, someone took it. I thought I had been hiding my disinclination rather well, but no. In the photo, M. leans towards me, a glass of port held aloft in one triumphant hand, the other clasping the back of my chair; he is smiling broadly, emitting palpable clouds of bonhomie and joie de vivre. I, by contrast, have my whole body turned slightly away, and I’m looking downwards. Thank goodness you cannot see my eyes, for the rest of my expression is eloquent enough. Whenever I’ve shown this photograph to people in the past they have tended to burst out laughing because I look so incredibly snooty and… and disdainful. There’s no other word for it really. There might as well be a speech bubble hovering over my head that says ‘I am not really here.’ Oh poor M. I do not think I looked like that the whole evening; I prefer to think of it as a moment when I relaxed my guard (I didn’t know it was being taken) and was captured on film expressing the honest indifference for my date that I couldn’t bring myself to put into words. It turns out that body language is a medium that it’s difficult to lie in.

But I kept that photo amongst my favourites for years because it was rather funny and it always reminded me that some situations are better nipped in the bud. I wish I could give you a good novelistic ending to this story, but I’m afraid M pursued me for the whole of my first year, and for some of the year after that, and I could never find a way to drop the axe with sufficient conviction. This might sound impossible, but he was too gentlemanly to pounce and I was repelling him with a kind of mini romantic ASBO, which disallowed any access within a meter radius, and you have to remember that our conversations were miracles of opacity. In this light I’m surprised it didn’t go on longer, but eventually he went for his year abroad, met a lovely French girl, and to my knowledge, married her a few years later. For my own happy ending, I eventually managed to get a 2:1 in my prose exam in finals. But I do regret not having been firmer and clearer and, I suppose on my terms, crueler, to M. Or perhaps I should say I ought to have been cruel to be kind rather than just plain cruel, and the photo was a good reminder that saying ‘no’ is sometimes an act of grace.

Emily and Chartroose – wordpress won’t let me link to you for some reason, but I’ll return and edit as soon as it will let me.

34 thoughts on “The Lost Photo

  1. I don’t know what a 2:1 is, but I’m giving this a one million:one million.

    There is a whole world, a whole novel, and a whole lot going on here, Ms. Best. I love most the incomprehensible nature of your tutor’s courtship,and the marvelous engineering student. I don’t need a photograph — you’ve captured it all beautifully.

    xo, L

  2. There are of course many version’s of this formative period of Litlove’s life! In this instance the picture is certainly worth at least a thousand words, and better still, I KNOW WHERE THE PHOTO IS. So once I have photoshopped it to protect the innocent (or rather the misused) -I’ll post a link below.

  3. Litlove, I always love reading your blog, but this is my very favourite post ever. And lately, I’ve been having serious issues w/ WordPress and pictures, which is really frustrating!

  4. Oh, thank you Litlove’s husband. Had he not commented my comment would be…Please, please, please, Litlove, if you ever find that photo you must absolutely share. You can’t share a story like this without the proper visuals! Although I totally understand the situation, and would hate to be in it, I must say that note is rather sweet–nothing like being wooed in French! I really love these stories you share!

  5. Well, this post was well worth the wait. I’d completely forgotten I’d tagged you for this one. Now I am eagerly awaiting Litlove’s Husband’s post, although I bet we don’t need it, as you’ve done such a wonderful job of describing this photo, I can vividly picture it! And,I am so glad to find I wasn’t the only one bumbling around at age 18 being “kindly” cruel. Then again, I also had boys bumbling around being “kindly” cruel to me, so I guess it all evens out in the end.

  6. Dear Bloglily – it’s rather like a B grade! Oh I did love your comment. Looking back I think M was a deeply romantic soul and so in some way it must have appealed to him – at least, that’s the best interpretation I can put on it! Husband mine – Oh. My. Lord. How did you know where it was? Never mind that now, we’ll discuss this later. Eva – what a lovely, lovely compliment – thank you! And I’m reassured to know it’s not just me – I couldn’t italicise or use bold or anything. Grrrr. Danielle – we seem to be getting the photo….!! Oh and can you imagine how touched I would have felt if I’d actually fallen for M and he’d sent me that note? It always makes me laugh now to think I couldn’t read it! I’m so glad you like my stories – they’re rather fun to tell. Emily – you are a darling to offer to keep me company in the obscure lowlands of teenage dating! I hadn’t got a clue! And I’m not surprised you’d forgotten – this must be my slowest response to a lovely meme ever, but I always knew I’d do it. I’m slower than I’d like replying to your email – today got away from me completely, but I’ll drop you a line very shortly, my friend.

  7. This post made me smile. Once, just once, for about two sentences, I wish I could write as beautifully as you have done. There are so many things in your post that strike a chord – everything from discomfiture faced by “a very big fish in a very small pond” when it finds itself all at sea at a big University, to the romantic blind alleys of the pursuers and the pursued within the academic grind.

    ROFL at Mr. Litlove’s comment!

  8. Poor M., and poor you! Those horrible situations we all got ourselves into at that time in our lives! I enjoyed this post, even though it took me back to some of the most awkward and embarrassing places in my own life 🙂

  9. What a funny, entertaining and cringeworthy story. Reminds me of the pics of my sister(s) at matric dances which were definitely “charity dates”. Come to think of it, I think I was a recipient of just such a date as well. And I loved the editorial intervention of Mr Litlove. Eva’s right – this is one of your best posts.

  10. What a great story! I wish there was a photo of you poring over that dictionary: “Je me suis epris de toi” / “Oh bugger!” made me laugh for a full 5 minutes!

  11. What a lovely account of the misapprehensions of life, especially in those formative years. It’s comforting to know other people found it as confusing as I did. The highs were the mountain tops and the lows the abyss as I recall. It’s things like this which make it less of a downer to be aging and crumbly. If only life were simpler and then again where would wonderful posts like this one come from if it were? And it always makes me think what if you’d fallen for M (I take it he’s now supervising 007), how different your life might have been, how such things have so great an impact and we can’t ever know what it might have been.

  12. Those wonderfully terrifying teenage years when we strived to be so adult, yet in hindsight we were so obviously crass and clumsy. The one thing that saved us from total humiliation was the fact that we were surrounded by others with exactly the same shortcomings, fears and limitations. But of course the girls were different. Always so much more mature and experienced and wonderfully unattainable. Although it was surprising what a little memorised Keats and Wordsworth could do – – –

  13. The Lost Photo – Found!
    For a limited time only – follow the link below to see the inspiration for this post

    Thanks for the tip, Archie – for just one evening she was ‘His own dejected, downcast Flower!’ (Love Lies Bleeding by WW)

  14. Two miracles! – an almost Proustian recall of the eighties, and my husband quoting Wordsworth. Isn’t it extraordinary the places blogging will take you?

    Emily – alas, for a couple of days it is there is its full glory, although that’s probably not the word! Polaris – you DO write beautifully. Your post on Camus was a triumph. And I’m always reassured to know that others had similar experiences to me, even if they were uncomfortable ones. Gentle Reader – aww, you’re just supposed to laugh at me, really! All my keys are on a fob that reads ‘If you can’t be a good example, you’ll have to be a terrible warning’ and it is usually all too relevant! I don’t think anyone manages to be graceful in their teens, or even later in life… Pete – thank you so much! I think we’ve all suffered the odd charity date at one point or another! I rather liked the image of you as witness to your sisters. Smithereens – lol! yes, I cannot tell you what an idiot I felt clutching that note while being observed with enormous expectation and having no idea what it meant! Bookboxed – yes, the only thing that makes approaching 40 bearable is the gratitude I realise I have that I’m not quite so gauche, awkward and confused any more. Although maybe that just depends on the day 🙂 And oh, the sliding doors aspect of these things is always intriguing. There are many junctures in my life when I realise I could have made very different choices, and yet I couldn’t have, really. The choices I did make always seemed like imperatives. Archie – it is so sweet of you to ascribe such powers to girls, but I’ll let you into a secret: we didn’t have a clue either. We were just waiting for men to make themselves clear to us. Still are, for the most part! I’ll bet you were a rogue with that Keats, though!

  15. Oh my God, I can’t believe he really wrote, “Je me suis épris de toi!” That’s soooo incredibly corny (and kind of sweet too). Practically every coed has endured an unwelcome pursuit, and yeah, it is sad for the smitten young man.

    Thanks for mentioning me — twice! You don’t have to link, athough it’s nice that you’re trying.

  16. What a delightfully funny story! And the photo is just the epitome of disdain on your part and blind adoration on his (even though we can’t see his face, the poor boy is obviously over the moon with pride that he’s managed to snag your company for the evening).

    We all have those cringeworthy moments to look back on – thanks for sharing yours 🙂

  17. Oh how I loved this post. You are a master storyteller, litlove! And thanks to Mr. Litlove for the choice photo. I believe I’ll keep my own cringeworthy moments to myself, however. I’m enjoying your chapters by the way. More on those later. Very best, Jacques.

  18. Oh, what a great story, very well told! I’m glad to have seen the photo, but also glad to have read and thought about your post first, as pictures do tend to take over everything. I would have handled the situation in a similar way, I’m afraid — it’s such a hard lesson to learn that some difficult honesty will save you a ton of trouble and pain later!

  19. Chartroose – that’s the kind of boy he was – corny and yet sweet. I’m sure he made someone a really delightful husband in the end! Ravenous – Whenever I’m in the middle of living a disaster I always comfort myself with the thought that in a little while it will make a great anecdote 🙂 I look at that photo and think, my goodness me, I look young. TJ – I’m so very glad you enjoyed it! And thank you so much for taking the time and the trouble to read the chapters. I feel that the one on lost children is going to sound very inadequate. I’m looking forward to hearing anything you have to say about them, though! Dorothy – that’s very kind of you to say so! I used to find it almost impossible to say ‘no’. These days I’m a little better; I don’t like it, but I will do it if necessary. Danielle – the photo should still be up! Try again if it didn’t link properly the first time and led me know if there’s a problem.

  20. OMG, love the story and the photo and Mr. Litlove’s discrete photoshop work 😀 In my personal experience and deep-searching analysis it is girls who are very nice and don’t want to hurt the other party and boys who are nice and completely clueless who fall into such situations. Ah, young love…

  21. ‘Limited time’ – I think not. Thank you for providing my new screensaver *pause to roll around floor, chortling and kicking my heels* Oh, it’s gorgeous. He’s even got his college scarf on OVER his bow tie. He’s holding a glass of port that’s older than him. And your FACE. We’ve all been you, but then we’ve all been M too.
    And as for misused, M was only misled. In my family, we pronounce misled “myzulled”. It sounds so deliciously blunder-y and free of malicious agency, no? No one’s fault, no deceit. Just a dear, innocent myzullee shuffling bemusedly through life’s vicissitudes, armed only with allusive complexity and a grasp of the future anterior. To everyone comes the chance to be love’s myzullee. Some of us make it our life’s trajectory but I did appreciate my one stint as a myzuller. The guilt was horrible, but hell, I passed Statistics.
    x The Fugitive
    (Lucky your husband didn’t realise that the ‘perks’ would eventually include providing 24hr technical support, and celestial navigation through the domestic Bermuda Triangle….let me know if he ever finds that polka dot jacket. They’re like, so hot right now, especially if you combine them with fluoro leggings.)

  22. Stefanie – my experience is yours, too. My husband once went to a dinner where a rather inebriated young man was pawing at a woman who put up with it until he left to go to the loo, when she then complained bitterly to her neighbours. My husband wanted to know why she didn’t just slap him. This was obvious to me – not making a scene seemed a fundamental behavioural rule when I was growing up! Fugitive – your comment is hilarious too – I’ve read it several times just for the laugh it gives me! I love this word ‘myzulled’ and will use it henceforth. I’ve been on both sides – but as far as I know there aren’t any photos of me as myzulee (I typed that sentence accompanied by a mental image of my husband suddenly producing another shock horror). And as for my clothing, does it get any better or worse if I tell you that it was in fact a whole dress…? And I loved it, thought it was sooooo sophisticated. Oh how cruel is the beast of fashion! And before I forget, congrats on the Statistics paper. As a methodology it does, alas, have its uses….

  23. Oh, I think we had the exact same hair in the eighties! What a perfect story. A real miracle of the internet would be if M were to stumble upon this post, and let you know that he had always remembered you fondly, but his French wife is the love of his life.

  24. The photo is very funny, but your telling of the story is wonderful. Sometimes ‘No’ is an act of grace, and it may have been in this case, but think what an act of grace, fortune, whatever, it was that you even came into possession of that photo and have been able to laugh at yourself for all these years!

  25. Is there a link I should be clicking? I don’t see it. Okay…there is a link! How funny. You look so completely unamused (body language says a lot, doesn’t it) and your date looks all happy go lucky! Thanks for sharing it!

  26. Dew – I have to confess, I still have the same hairstyle! No courage me, for changing that kind of thing. I would love for M to send me that kind of a message. May it never read: I’m divorced, can’t we try again? Cam – I have to thank that photo for a really good laugh over many, many years. I wonder whether I would remember it all so clearly if I didn’t have archival evidence? Oh I expect I would – I do have a retentive memory for that kind of thing! Thank you, Cam. Danielle – So glad you found it! I look so prissy it’s not true… Good reminder to self to keep some track of facial expressions in social situations! David – I’m so happy that you enjoyed it – and isn’t myzulled a great word? Your comment made me laugh a lot. You can see how he set the tone for all subsequent communication! These days, I know much, much better how a man’s words are a good measure of him.

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  29. I just found this as a result of your answers to the Sisterhood Q&A, and OH my goodness. It is so great. I sympathize/identify/am massively amused. And it’s wonderfully written, too! If the Moth project ( ever turns up near you, do consider using this story 🙂

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