|Philip Hensher in 1998: 'What was it about Ricardo? The growl in his voice? The shimmy in his walk, always about to transform itself into a podium flail and strut?' Photograph: Jacques Lange|
The one that got away: Philip Hensher
'It could only be for a single, crazy summer. You could only lick him. You couldn't marry him'
Saturday 23 August 2014
saw him first across a seminar room in Cambridge. I was 35, and about to give a talk to an international conference about my own work – a setting of the utmost respectability, as Taiwanese, Egyptian, Ghanaian academics thrust offprints of their scholarly articles about the novels of Julian Barnes into each others' hands. But there, in the third row, was Ricardo. You couldn't fail to notice him. I gave my talk; he asked a saucy question, his eyebrow raised; and in the evening I sat next to him at dinner, after manipulating the place settings. He was a Venezuelan professor with a guttural noise in his voice and a face full of outrageous possibilities. I couldn't keep my hands off him.
Ricardo stayed in London for the next four months, to his university's astonishment and resentment. The summer of 2000 was the most insane of my life. I just couldn't understand it. Neither could he. Most of my friends found him charming, but impossible; most of his London friends, highly respectable South American disco dollies who liked to confine their festivities to formally licensed hours, openly disapproved of me. We had a terrible influence on each other. Sometimes, we would catch each other's eye in a public place and, before we knew it, were groping each other, tongues down each other's throats, in the British Museum or in Debenhams. God knows how we avoided being beaten up or arrested. It was like being 16 again. But I was never like that when I was 16.
We made each other laugh constantly, and that summer everything else disappeared from my sense of priorities. One day I turned up an hour and a quarter late to a long-arranged lunch with the editor of a national newspaper. We'd been lying in bed, eating toast off each other's tummies, all morning. The editor was outraged, and never used me again. I just didn't care.
What was it about Ricardo? The growl in his voice? The shimmy in his walk, always about to transform itself into a podium flail and strut (my God, that one could dance)? The wonderful animal odour he had in the mornings? I stood so many people up, those four months. For the only time in my entire adult life, I didn't write a single word all summer. I had to make it up to dozens of outraged friends when October came round.
When he went, it was all over. It could only be for a single, crazy summer. You could only lick him. You couldn't marry him. The mind honestly quails at the idea. He just swept in and out again – I felt liberated, transformed, joyous. A year later, I met the man I would marry, and felt grateful to Ricardo for that, too.
He died. Anyway. I hadn't heard from him for a while, and sent him a message on Facebook. A girl wrote back – a name I didn't know – saying that he'd died a year before. She was a mystic, euphemistic type in the way she explained stuff, and it took some time to sort out the facts. I'd have liked to have said goodbye. Those four months in London were like a first experience of a continent, the break of rain after months of dry heat, like going to bed with a man for the first time and finding out that laughter was also a possibility. He was quite something.