There was a natural beauty about her: the kind a girl might unconsciously enjoy if social unease does not make her ask herself whether her hair is too long or short, or chin pronounced or eyes too close together or anything which unsettles us in relation to our peers so that we make those initially subtle alterations which take us further from ourselves and so the unsettling voyage begins. Her manner was unguarded and strangely moving if I’m honest, and I wished for some excuse to go over and speak with her.
She was the daughter of my English lecturer at university, the one who specialised in Victorian literature, a kindly man who had invited his tutorial group to spend the night with him and enjoy a day’s walking on the fells. Now it was the evening, and we were back in his house and about to enjoy a meal cooked by his lovely wife. They were a picture of the perfect family, and the daughter was the angel you would expect in such a setting.
As I writhed within myself, and wondered what light and casual remark I could use to introduce myself to her, “Mr Glib” or Andrew Cummings to use his real name, another of the students and one who later went on to enjoy a quite prominent career in broadcasting, slide in her direction and asked her in the tone of one used to dealing with life and its varied nuances, “So are you at university yourself” and she smiled at him and revealed she was at the same university as us, but studying medicine. “That’s very clever” said Mr Glib and soon he was oozing himself inside her life and suggesting they might meet for coffee in the student union.
I am confident that I was one of my professor’s favourite students because I actually had a passion for the subject he taught, but outside the world of tutorials and precisely worded essays I was socially awkward and with a wardrobe to match. Once more I had to pretend that nothing touched me and “real-life” was a subject of research rather than experience. “How do you put the fun into your day?” I heard Mr Glib ask the unspoilt beauty and soon they were sharing their passion for vintage films, which surprised me, as I had been exposed for extended periods to Andrew’s languid discussion of his interests and “vintage films” had never featured in them.
I ate my meal, and managed to bore everyone but the professor with my discussion on “Fors Clavigera” an interesting text written by the Victorian social thinker, John Ruskin. Finally Mr Glib said “This is not a tutorial Nigel” and smiled at me as if he was being kind, and then at the group with his “Where do we find them?” tolerance: I was never much good at dinner parties.
To make matters worse, Cummings went on to marry her, and enjoy his career success; no doubt revered by his listeners and fellow broadcasters. I met him and his wife years later at a reunion dinner where my job as an English teacher drew few gasps of admiration from the group, most of whom were gathered round Mr Cummings, apart from his wife who stood some distance away, staring at a watercolour. On impulse I went up to her and said, “You know, when we were students, and we had that dinner at your father’s, I wanted to come over and speak to you but Andrew got there first, and the rest is history.”
“I wish you had” she said, and gently touched my arm and I wondered if she might still be my unopened gift from destiny. “How is your father?” I asked, but before she could answer Andrew came over with that smile of his which speaks a thousand languages. “How is life in the classroom?” he asked, cutting across our conversation, “Still banging on about John Ruskin?” and his manner was curiously replete and satisfied. She looked at me, like a conspirator and said to her husband with something of an edge, “The last word isn’t everything you know” and he replied, “What do you mean?” but I think I understood her. I hope I did.