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.