‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

December 2001. Two things occupy most of my thoughts:

1) Sex
2) My upcoming Cambridge interview.

The first of those has been bothering me for a couple of years by this point, ever since I learned how to make myself come. My desk has a mini shelf just next to my bed, and for some reason, because it’s low down I pretend my mum can’t see it, or rather, I pretend she can’t see the teetering pile of books on it. The pile that started off as mainly Mills & Boon ‘Blaze’ but now contains a couple of Nancy Friday titles, too – Men in Love and Women on Top, to be precise, because these are the raciest things sold in WH Smith and even though Amazon exists now and they’ll accept my Visa Electron, my mum will ask what I ordered, and I’m not good at lying.

My sexual fantasies are more fluid at this point than they’ve ever been since, with no sexual experience at all to go on – even my first kiss isn’t until January 2002 – and as I read about other people’s kinks I mentally flit from sex with other women, to BDSM, to rape fantasy, to anal. Everything seems possible.

My path through life hasn’t been dictated by my parents. Ever since they took me to look at a private school and I kicked off at the mention of Wednesday afternoons being dedicated to sport, they’ve pretty much left me to my own devices when it comes to studying. I have one frustrating conversation with my mum, when I’m choosing my AS subjects, which goes something like this:

Me: ‘I want to do AS French.’

Her: ‘Are you sure? Why don’t you choose something you’re definitely good at, like Chemistry?’

Me: ‘I’m doing French.’

This conversation could have been motivated by numerous factors. My mum, also a French graduate, never used it once she left university, and therefore doubts its usefulness – I want to point out that she picked children over a career, but I don’t. It could be that I’ve been consistently good at most academic subjects, whereas languages, which require confidence to speak in front of the class, have never been my thing. It could be that she knows I have a hopeless crush on the A-Level French teacher. She’s right about that one – it *is* what’s motivating me. But it pays off. Towards the end of Year 12, I get called to see the Head of Sixth Form.

‘What degree are you thinking of applying for?’ he asks. He’s barely 30, and he looks about 15. I don’t believe for a minute that he knows where my strengths lie.

‘Er, French?’

‘Great,’ comes the response. ‘And have you thought about Oxbridge?’

I haven’t. Oxbridge is for people who’ve dreamt of it all their life. I have Durham in mind. But he talks me round, and I pick Cambridge. My memory is that this is because it’s only 20 miles away and it’s not worth going all the way to Oxford for interview when I’m clearly not going to get in, but this seems ridiculous, looking back.

I remember what I wore, even now. Black trousers, purple fitted jumper with a cute keyhole neckline. We’re specifically asked not to wear suits. I wait outside the interview room and when the candidate before me comes out, she immediately has to knock and go back in, because she’s forgotten her scarf.

Shit, I think, you’ve fucked it. I think they’re looking for perfection, not absent-minded scarf forgetters.

The interview is a disaster. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious colleges in the university, chosen because my Latin teacher once had a drink with someone who supervises there once in a blue moon. I didn’t go to the open day. I have no idea if it’s right for me.

They’ve made us sit a written exam beforehand, and now I know I don’t stand a chance in hell. I’m interviewing for French and beginner’s Italian, because you have to read two languages, but naively, I’m not for a second expecting questions on the latter.

More fool me. The first thing they do is hand me an A4 piece of paper with an extract from an Italian novel.

‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

I stumble through it. Fuck knows how. I can guess maybe 20% of the words, but the grammar is a mystery. I can’t give them the perfection they’re looking for.

And I’m right about that, in the end. I’m not what *they’re* looking for, but a month later I’m interviewed by a different college where I’m asked bizarrely easy questions like ‘Do you like Rome?’ They make me an offer.

They’re not looking for perfection, I realise, looking back. They’re looking for a spark. Which is a lesson I still have to learn about sex.

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