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“I was terrified of talking to women”: Rhik Samadder on starting university

In an extract from I Never Said I Loved You, writer Rhik Samadder revisits the moment university first forced him out of his comfort zone.

Introverted, anxious and acutely aware of the outsider status foisted on him by his Asian heritage, Rhik Samadder spent much of his adolescence learning to fade into the background, walling himself off through silence and retreating into books. Resigned to a life of isolation, which was safer than facing the risks inherent to relationships, Samadder came to the conclusion that sex was something that happened to other people, who would then write about it in great detail in FHM. And then university happened. In an extract from his book, I Never Said I Loved You, Samadder recalls one of his first tortured encounters with the opposite sex in UCL’s halls of residence.

As the joke goes, celibacy was a choice; it just wasn’t my first choice. The next stage in this personal history of sex was an actual engagement with it. Being shut out of the desire system had done nothing to quell the stirring of it within me. Like bruised moss, it clung on, attached to stony surfaces. In the last of my school years, embarrassing in its predictability, I developed an attraction to goths.

Of course I did. Their wine-dark lips and marmoreal pallor were the embodiment of Thanatos, the unconscious longing for death. They were the only ones appropriately dressed for the funeral we’d been born into. For sure, I didn’t understand their choices. It was unclear how a heightened awareness of mortality nudged one into lace corsets and fishnet tights, but those things spoke to me too, so I didn’t interrupt. The appeal of goth girls was their distance, in any case. I knew I would never get close to one. They would never notice me: they longed for a head-banging boy who wrote on his arms in Biro, possessed of a part-time bad attitude. They were idealised and unreal. In time-honoured tradition, I was Terrified of Talking to Women. It was only after I’d arrived at university that I dipped a toe in the water, and even then, still worried about getting wet.

Whatever the opposite of moves is, I had it. I was in a pickle when, after a few weeks, the Cornish hippy who lived in our halls of residence – the one who was flaxen-haired, smoked weed every day and had a slow, broad smile like a lazy river – invited me up to her room to chat. It was like being selected to play for England: an inexplicable nightmare that could only end in physical humiliation. Yet she was beautiful, so I had to go. Cardigan buttoned or open? Should I take a gift? Flowers? I didn’t have any. In the end, I took a toffee hammer with me, because it was all I had and I needed a USP.

It was like being selected to play for England: an inexplicable nightmare that could only end in physical humiliation

Zany twat, I cursed myself as the door opened to a vision. She flaxenly put my gift to one side and invited me to make myself comfortable. There was no furniture, other than the bed on which she was sitting. I clambered to the floor, brushing crumbs out of the way.

"Do you want some spinach?" It was an odd question, but I could hardly call her out, having arrived moments earlier with a shrunken hammer. I looked at her, wondering why I wasn’t saying anything. Things were already going worse than I’d anticipated, and I’d been inside for under a minute. "I’m saying we could share a bowl," she laughed. I wondered if she was mad. She took a moment to appraise me, concluding, "You’re funny." Generous, as my only contribution had been to tell her I wasn’t hungry.

Without warning, she bent over the edge of the bed and fingered my buttonhole. "You’re gonna lose that," she said. This was unprecedented. With the unexpected contact of her hand, a leaping in my blood. I could feel the pulsing of a chrysalis. A vision of life on our Cornish alpaca farm. I would do business with fences and chickens, while she tended her jazz ferns, and in the evenings we would robustly spouse. To have something new in the world!

She rolled over and scrabbled around for a metal tin, retrieving a needle and thread, as if she hadn’t already proved herself demonstrably perfect. Was she really working the sharp little wand between the tiny holes, nimble fingers gently bumping my chest? Such an inefficient way to sew, with me still in the cardigan, mute and transported. I tried to muffle the beating of my heart, as she fixed the button and liquefied my organs. It wasn’t exactly Marvin Gaye, but still a hell of a lesson. I need sexual darning. It’s something that’s good for me.

I tried to muffle the beating of my heart, as she fixed the button and liquefied my organs

Post-button, there was nowhere left for us to go. I had only said a handful of words, and the effort of carrying the conversation seemed to be tiring her. "When I move my head quickly, it squeaks like there are clouds inside," she said sadly. Magazines hadn’t prepared me in any way for this; offered no traction on the facets of a real person, in their opacity and touching weirdness. Of course, she was baked as a potato. I was equally flummoxed by her hair, and the woodland-spirit softness of her voice. Eventually things became too awkward, an unreachable itch pushing me to my feet. I had to leave the room, go and tell Chris. On my way out, a foot in the hallway and quivering, I wondered if there was room for another first. "I know someone who likes you," I quavered from behind the door. When she asked who, I fled, making sure we never spoke again.

Beauty is, by mathematician and poet alike, our highest truth. It pays to be beautiful. Good bone structure is a skeleton key, unlocking the doors of experience. Reproductive capital, higher wages, wider social circles, reputation. It also makes a mockery of our moral ideal: to judge things by their worth, and not their surface. I’d spent my judgemental years worrying that we shouldn’t be attracted to attractive people. It was the injustice of it all that was overwhelming: watching people whose faces were their calling cards, who attracted interest and opportunity, parlaying modest talents into disproportionate success. These people didn’t have to prove themselves to be accepted, they were prized and welcome. We bestow on the beautiful a nimbus of moral trustworthiness too. We’re always ready to redeem the heroic-looking. Look at young Stalin, raffishly tousled, thick of barnet and hipster of cravat. Is there anything more valuable in this world than the benefit of the doubt?

I Never Said I Loved You by Rhik Samadder is out now.

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