I was six the last time I experienced such a naked and indefensible aversion to someone. I was given a new girl to look after at school. She was fat and happy, or so my memory goes. There's nothing else I can remember about her at all apart from the round contentedness of her sticky, continuous presence. My hatred was immediate and visceral. I can summon it now: something acidic sloshing around in the solar plexus. I dropped rubbers and pencils under the desk, and while I was down there I pinched her calves. I gave her Chinese burns, whispered cruel things in her ear. I refused to talk to her or wait for her. Still she followed me about, because she had to, and I had to let her. Eventually, she told her mother and I was presented to the whole school at assembly, publicly disgraced for my awful behaviour. Quite rightly. No one was allowed to talk to me for a fortnight. I'm still ashamed. The obvious explanation is the exhortation to 'look after' her. Nurturing was never my strong point. But on recent Monday nights, when Corpus Christi College, Oxford was competing in University Challenge on television, those same stomach-eroding, unreasonable juices started flowing at the sight of its team captain, Gail Trimble, to whom I have no duty of care at all. Even so, I took to closing my eyes and lala-ing whenever she buzzed her way to the right answer. I am 61 years old.
LRB 12 March 2009 | PDF Download