"But I ain't losing sleep and I ain't counting sheep." -- Cliff Richard

Life Still doubting my ability to write without repeating myself, apologies if you've heard this story before, inspired by this Wired article. The time was 1995 and I was writing my undergraduate dissertation. Sitting in one of the computer annexes, bored with trying to explain the reasons why someone decided to paint loin-clothes on the The Last Judgement in The Sistine Chapel, I began scrolling though the university's student email address list. This was a full decade before social network actually caught on and was about the only way to make new friends. Everyone did this at some point, I think, just went through the list and randomly picked out a name they liked from a course they were interested in -- no messing about with photographs or what kind of fruit they liked back then.

I picked someone whose name inevitably I can't remember now but which I thought was really memorable then -- I think it was Zoe Something (was it Panda?) and just asked how she was and she was working too we got into a conversation about university and this and that and passed a couple of hours. In those innocent times this didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary and is probably a technological miracle considering email then wasn't within a million miles of Windows, all green text on black screen and you could see who you were writing email to whilst you were doing it. I used to get a few myself. After that day we kept in touch for a few weeks, not quite in real time but it was fun, especially since it was clear we were totally different people who certainly wouldn't have spoken in the real world.

About a month later I was working in an annex on a different campus, by then trying to explain how search engines work, I think, for a totally different assignment. The room was packed and once again after a few hours my attention began to wonder. A really, really nice looking was girl sitting next to me was writing an email and since the text was massive it was too easy to see her typing ...
'Hope you're ok and not working too hard. There's this strange bloke sitting next to me whose typing really, really quickly. I haven't seen any other blokes who can type that fast, it's unnerving.'
I knew she was talking about me (there was a girl on the other side of her) and she was right, and still would be, I can type remarkable fast considering I'm using three fingers and a thumb at most and that is strange (it's probably also strange that I was reading someone else's email). I got up and went to toilet and when I came back decided to email Zoe and tell her about what the girl sitting next to me had said, ha, ha. I opened up the email software and there was already a message from her waiting for me. I think you're probably way ahead by now (especially if you've glanced downward). But just in case, the email said:
'Hope you're ok and not working too hard. There's this strange bloke sitting next to me whose typing really, really quickly. I haven't seen any other blokes who can type that fast, it's unnerving.'
I can remember it just about word for word (but not Zoe's full name. That's very odd). I glanced over to the really, really nice looking was girl who I now know was Zoe -- I suspect the look was something like the one Marti McFly gives in Back To The Future when he realises that he's looking at his father in that diner in the 1950s.
Of course, I wanted to say hello and of course it would have been far easier for me to just turn to her and say, 'Hello, excuse me, are you Zoe?', which is exactly what I would have done if this had happened now. Instead I replied to her email.
'I am the strange strange bloke sitting next to you and you're right I am a fast typist'
I watched her open up her email account. I watched her read her email and waited for her to look over so that I could wave and we could laugh and then go for coffee (!?!). Instead, she kept her head straight ahead and began typing.
'Oh god, I'm really embarrassed .... stop reading what I'm writing until you've got it ...'
I was reading (again). I stopped. She sent the email. I got it straight away.
'It would probably be best if we don't talk anymore.' Which I know is a Cliff Richard lyric but is probably a close approximation of what she said.
You're embarrassed? Did I now choose to speak to her now? Nope. New reply.
'Really it's ok. I don't want you to be embarrassed. Can we talk offline. We're sitting right next to each other.'
'No. I'm too embarrassed.' She sent back.
Then a friend arrived and she stopped typing, packed up her troubles and left, without saying another word or looking at me.

A week went by and I didn't hear from her. I emailed her and asked how she was, the usual. She replied saying: 'Sorry, I'm too embarrassed now. It's not the same. Please don't email again.'
And I didn't.

Of course, along with turning down that late night halls room invite (different story) I'll never know if the outcome would have been different if I had simply just spoken to her and I know that the reason I didn't do that was because of the self-confidence issue I had at the time which I don't have now quite so much -- she seemed far too nice to speak to a dope like me and afterwards I just decided that she didn't like the look of me. She had called me strange in the email, after all. Now I just think, some acquantances are best left virtual.


  1. Funny story. It sort of reminds me of a scene from the movie "Pretty in Pink."

  2. Man, I feel for you there! Replying via mail sounds like the type of thing I would have done! :D

    Isn't it also possible that she was upset that you were reading her private mails by shoulder surfing?

    Interesting way of meeting people though... In the pre-spam era!

  3. Oh dear. OH DEAR. Oh dear.

    By the way, did I send you a CD in return this Christmas? I remember I meant to; just can't remember if I did (everyone got CDs this year as I have a lot of good music and am a tightass).