Looking back at photos of myself in my late teens, and seeing what other people saw, I realise I was so stupid to believe in all I imagined to be true. I toy with sharing such an image so that others might see what I mean, but they are so horrendous for me that I cannot bring myself to do it.
Here the image I almost published. It’s 1996. I’m aged nineteen. I’m standing inbetween two trainee priests at a theological college in central Tanzania. My arms are hidden behind my back — they always were, because they were like matchsticks. My forehead is disproportionately large compared to the rest of my head. My cheek bones are very pronounced. But then everything beneath that: narrow, pulled tight. Think Michael Jackson in his 1995 phase, only more gaunt.
I knew even then that I was odd looking, but I suppose I must have got used to it — or I avoided the mirror as much as I could. Fortunately, in those days we neither had smartphones nor cameras always to hand, so photos of me back then are few and far between. Nevertheless, I recall those moments well. I was most self-conscious about my arms, which I could see, so terribly emaciated.
But of course my face was my window to the world, so while I looked out and saw beauty, others looked back upon a freakish epicene form, to which the only response could be derision. To be charitable to myself, I could say that it was as if I had drunk the elixir of eternal youth. But that’s not really what I or anybody else saw. All of the harassment I encountered was because it wasn’t a masculine face, expected in a young man in adolescence.
Perhaps the photos from 1995/6 are more pronounced because that was my year of dark dejection, suffering from that desolate concoction of desire and despair, compounded by a deficient diet while living alone far from home. But nevertheless it wasn’t much different to the face that had accompanied me since the turn of the decade. It’s strange then that I let my imagination run away with me, believing in that call of my heart.
While I knew I had no chance wooing my primary longterm crush, the American actress Julia Roberts — in those days, the most beautiful woman in the world to my youthful mind — somehow I allowed myself to believe in other fantastical renderings of my imagination, misunderstanding glances and interactions at length. Only now does it occur to me how preposterous that was. All of the words once written down, the poetry once penned: pure make-believe.
And yet… some five years after that, I would meet a woman raised three thousand miles away who saw in me something she could embrace. Of course, my world had changed immensely in the years since that horrendous photo had been taken in the heart of Tanzania. Three years earlier, quite separately, we had both embarked on this journey of self-discovery, uttering our testimony of faith on the same Bank Holiday weekend. I guess our paths had been set to converge just then.
What did she see in me back then? Certainly my face was less conspicuous by that time. Still youthful, but not quite so anorexic. Perhaps all those curries fed to me by that old uncle had helped. Perhaps all those shishs from my kebab shop on the corner of Boston Manor Road had helped too. But perhaps it was just my time: an answer to a sincere prayer, patience rewarded. Maybe that’s one old photo I could share: of the day that turned my life around.