We are standing at the bus stop, dad and I. Between us on the ground is a battered and ancient trunk. God only knows where it came from. Some bloke at the pub? Someone’s attic. It’s brown, with wooden ridges across it that may once have had leather on them. In it are all my worldly goods, such as they are. I am off to Victoria Station to get the coach to Southampton to start at university. How am I going to get this thing on and off the bus, on and off the train and on and off another?
We are all on a coach going down the M3 and my misbegotten trunk is underneath me somewhere. We all seem to be male, nervous and bluff, though I don’t see how we can be. It feels exactly like a school excursion. The only thing anyone can think of to say is ‘So what ‘A’ levels did you get?’ and I have no more conversational imagination than anyone else. Eventually someone pipes up with ‘So what’s Southampton like, anyway?’ No one has any idea. There’s a silence that lasts until the motorway finishes and we don’t start to find out.
I unpack all the records, and the stereo Phil S. passed on to me. I put the trunk in the trunk room with all the other trunks, and then I am at a loss in my tiny room. The halls are segregated, floor by floor, so my male corridor mates in the shared kitchen pause long enough from reciting Monty Python sketches verbatim to say hello and tell me what ‘A’ Levels they did. I feel compelled to tell them I am a vegetarian and to prove it by eating some muesli with a strawberry flavoured Ski yogurt mixed through it.
The first night at university, in the student bar in the halls of residence. I feel strangely at home, but adrift. In the student union bar I stand with my pint in my hand, turning this way and that towards conversations I’m not in.. Someone materialises at my shoulder with an olive green crushed velvet t-shirt, and mischievous eyes. “You look like you’re worth talking to,” he says, “can I buy you a drink?”
“Well I don’t know,’ I say, “what ‘A’ Levels did you get?’, and he sprays a mouthful of beer all over the person next to me.
“So when they ask me about my ‘A’ levels I tell them. And then they kind of lean in towards me, but they can’t say anything, because I don’t ask them.” I am in awe, but it does mean that we can hardly ask each other what bands we like, so the conversation sags slightly, until over the third pint he reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out an exquisitely constructed joint. “Let’s start as we mean to go on.”
In the morning the sink in my room is blocked. The caretaker just looks at me: he doesn’t even ask.
We are standing at the bus stop, dad and I. The trunk was sent on ahead: that’s the only thing that makes any sense, even though sending your trunk on ahead is straight out of Jennings and Darbyshire. It must be a battered suitcase between us, that we used to take to the Isle of Wight on our holidays. Dad carried it on his head when we had to walk the three miles home from Hersham Station in 1966. I whined. Kevin kicked me. Mum lost her temper.
The bus comes. ‘Good luck, son,’ says dad, and slips me a tenner.
Do I look like I’m worth talking to? I have a great mass of hair, which is either cavalier ringlets around my shoulders, ironically, given my levelling leanings, or an airborne Zappa frizz, depending on how recently it has been washed: so it’s usually ringlets. A lazy beard, rings, black nail varnish, an embroidered black velvet waistcoat, a t-shirt with medieval sleeves, covered in golden heraldic hippy lions. A gold and rose tasselled scarf swishing from a belt loop. Blue desert boots. Hanging around my neck, on a small varnished piece of wood, Arthur Rackham’s Alice is discomfited by the caterpillar.
It’s my birthday not long after I arrive. Some of my new friends give me Absolutely Live by The Doors. My girlfriend A. comes down from home. We’ve been together for about two months. She’s made a montage for me, (she’s an art student) with drawings of sinewy Earthsea dragons and contact photos of me, and her, and her soppy black spaniel Jasper, who I’ve rather taken to. She has quite possibly ridden down on the B-roads on her Honda 70. She’s my first ever actual girlfriend and though having an actual girlfriend is kind of massive, I am distracted, semi-attentive.
Phil S. and some other friends from school come down for my birthday too. There is a photo of everyone in the student bar looking quite jolly together, but there is a tension in everyone’s eyes because there’s no kilter. My new friends are perfectly friendly, but my old friends feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are there on sufferance, and act accordingly. One new acquaintance, pale, bland, with an ethereal afro, provokes an old friend almost to violence just by existing, and though I understand, objectively, (he is annoying) I am embarrassed, and relieved when they have gone home.
A few days in I write to dad, in a regulation anodyne way, not really saying anything. He writes back, and I read his letter as I sit in the empty laundry watching my jeans go round and round. “Thanks very much for your letter, son. You’ll never know how glad I was to receive it. It isn’t much fun sitting here on my own night after night…” I can barely take it in. What is this? The U-boat captain in my head is screaming “DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!”. I screw the hatch shut just in time, heart thumping, mouth dry.