My name is Mike Engleby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university. My college was founded in 1662, which means it’s viewed here as modern. Its chapel was designed by Hawksmoor, or possibly Wren; its gardens were laid out by someone else whose name is familiar. The choir stalls were carved by the only woodcarver you’ve ever heard of. The captain of the Boat Club won a gold medal at an international games last year. (I think he’s studying physical education.) The captain of cricket has played for Pakistan, though he talks like the Prince of Wales. The teachers, or “dons,” include three university professors, one of whom was on the radio recently talking about lizards. He’s known as the Iguanodon.
Tonight I won’t study in my room because there’s the weekly meeting of the Folk Club. Almost all the boys in my college go to this, not for the music, though it’s normally quite good, but because lots of girl students come here for the evening. The only boys who don’t go are those with a work compulsion, or the ones who think folk music died when Bob Dylan went electric.
There’s someone I’ve seen a few times, called Jennifer Arkland. I discovered her name because she stood for election to the committee of a society. On the posters, the candidates had small pictures of themselves and, under their names and colleges, a few personal details. Hers said: “Second–year History exhibitioner. Previously educated at Lymington High School and Sorbonne. Hobbies: music, dance, film–making, cooking. Would like to make the society more democratic with more women members and have more outings.”
I’d seen her in the tea room of the University Library, where she was usually with two other girls from her college, a fat one called Molly and a severe dark one, whose name I hadn’t caught. There was often Steve from Christ’s or Dave from Jesus sniffing round them.
I think I’ll join this society of hers. It doesn’t matter what it’s for because they’re all the same. They’re all called something Soc, short for Society. Lab Soc, Lit Soc, Geog Soc. There’s probably a knitting group called Sock Soc.
I’ll find out about Jen Soc, then go along so I can get to know her better.
I won a prize to come to my college and it pays my fees; my family’s poor. I took a train from school one day after I’d sat the exams and had been called for interview. I must have stayed in London on the way, but I have no memory of it. My memory’s odd like that. I'm big on detail, but there are holes in the fabric. I do remember that I took a bus from the station, though I didn’t know then what my college looked like. I went round the whole city and ended up back at the station, having made the round trip. Then I took a taxi and had to borrow some money from the porter to pay for it. I still had a pound note in my wallet for emergencies.
They gave me a key to a bedroom; it was in a courtyard that I reached by a tunnel under the road. I imagined what kind of student lived there normally. I pictured someone called Tony with a beard and a duffel coat. I tried really hard to like the room and the college that was going to be mine. I imagined bicycling off to lectures in the early morning with my books balanced on a rack over the back wheel. I'd be shouting out to the other guys, “See you there!” I’d probably smoke a pipe. I’d also probably have a girlfriend—some quite stern grammar school girl with glasses, who wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.
In fact, I didn’t like the room I was in that night. It was damp, it was small and it felt as though too many people had been through it. It didn’t seem old enough; it didn’t seem 17th century, or modern: it was more like 1955. Also, there was no bathroom. I found one up the stairs. It was very cold and I had to stay dressed until the bath was run. The water itself was very hot. Everything in the room and on the stairs smelled slightly of gas, and lino.
I slept fine, but I didn't want to have breakfast in the dining hall because of having to talk to the other candidates. I went along the street and found a cafe and had weak coffee and a sausage roll, which I paid for from my spare pound. I re-entered the college by the main gate. The porter was sullen in his damp lodge with a paraffin heater. “G12, Dr. Woodrow’s rooms,” he said. I found it all right, and there was another boy waiting outside. He looked clever.
Eventually, the door opened and it was my turn. There were two of them in there: a big schoolmasterly man who showed me to a chair, then sat down at a desk; and a younger, thin man with a beard who didn't get up from his armchair. Teachers at my school didn’t have beards.
“You wrote well on Shakespeare. Do you visit the theatre a good deal?” This was the big one talking. It sounded too much like an ordinary conversation to be an interview. I suspected a trap. I told him there wasn’t a theatre where we lived, in Reading.
I was watching him all the time. How grand, to be a Doctor of whatever and to weigh up and decide people’s future. I’d once seen a set of table mats in a shop which had pictures of men in different academic gowns: Doctor of Divinity, Master of Arts and so on. But this was the first real one I'd seen. He asked me a few more things, none of them interesting.
"…the poetry of Eliot. Would you care to make a comparison between Eliot and Lawrence?"
This was the younger one, and it was his first contribution. I thought he must be joking. An American banker interested in the rhythms of the Anglican liturgy and a pitman's son who wanted to escape from Nottingham, maybe via sex, or by his crude paintings. Compare them? I looked at him carefully, but he showed no sign of humour so I gave an answer about their use of verse forms, trying to make it sound as though it had been a reasonable question. He nodded a few times and looked relieved. He didn't follow it up.
The big one leafed through my papers again. “Your personal report,”he said at last, “from your teacher…Did you have difficulties with him?”
I hadn't been aware of any, I said.
“Is there anything that you'd like to ask us about life in college? We try to make everyone feel welcome."
It seemed wrong not to ask something; it might look as though I didn't care. But I couldn't ask any of the things I really wanted to know. In the silence we heard the college clock chime the half-hour. I felt them both looking at me. Then I felt a trickle of sweat on my spine. I hardly ever sweat normally, and it gave me an idea.
“What's the thing with laundry?”
“What?" said the big one, gruffly.
“Do you have…Well, like, washing machines? Is it done centrally or do I take it somewhere or what?”
"I'm not quite sure," said the younger one.
“Each undergraduate is assigned a moral tutor,” said the schoolmasterly one. “A Fellow of the college who can help you with all your personal and health questions."
“So he'd be the one to ask?”
"Yes. Yes, I imagine so.”
I thought that now I'd broken the ice, it might be good to ask another question. "What about money?" I said.
“How much money will I need?”
"I imagine your local authority will provide a grant. It's up to you how you spend it. Do you have questions about the work?"
“No. I read the prospectus.”
“Do you find the idea of Chaucer daunting?—
"No, I like Chaucer."
"Yes, yes, I can see that from your paper. Well, Mr. Engle . . . er…”
“Englebury. You can go now, unless…Gerald?"
"Good. So we'll look forward to seeing you next autumn."
I didn't see how they could let me go without telling me how it had gone. "Have I won a prize?" I said.
"We shall be writing to your school in due course. When we've completed the interview process. It's an exceptional year."
I shook his offered hand, waved at the seated one and went out, down the oak stairs. What a pair of frauds.
In the evening I tear a ticket from a book and take it to the college dining hall, which was designed by Robert Adam. You have to buy a book of thirty-five every term; you don’t actually have to use them, but the cash you pay in advance keeps the kitchen going. I’m wearing a long black gown over my jeans and sweater and there are candles in sconces on the painted plaster walls. We stand up when a door behind the top table opens and the Fellows of the college come in to dine. The Master is an oceanographer, who once drew maps of undersea mountain ranges. He knows how Australia was once attached to China or how Ghana sweated in the foothills of the Andes. I think he imagines that New Zealand once broke free from Germany.
The crystal glasses glitter in the candlelight. They drink wine. We drink water, though you are allowed to ask for beer if you like. Stellings is the only man to do this.
“A pint of ale, please, Robinson,” he says to the stooping butler. “Beer for you, Mike?”
I shake my head. Stellings brews his own beer in a plastic barrel. He calls it SG (short for student's gin: drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence) and once forced me to drink it, even though it made me sick, with its powerful taste of malt and raw alcohol, which he achieves by doubling the sugar input recommended on the side of the kit. There is no bathroom near his room, so I had to vomit into a plastic watering can on the landing.
I sometimes don’t take dinner in the dining hall. I’ve found some places I like better. One of them is a pub, a walk of ten or fifteen minutes away, over a green (there are a lot of greens or “pieces” as they call them here), down a side street, up a back street. The beer there tastes much better than Stellings's homebrew. It’s made by a brewery called Greene King. One of the King family, they say, is a famous novelist. The lights here are low, the floor is made of wooden boards; the other people are not from the university. They are what are called ordinary people, though each person is really too specific to be ordinary. It’s quite dark, and people talk softly. Although the barman knows me, he doesn't intrude. I often have a baked potato, or a cheese and ham pie, which is messy to eat because the melted cheese is stringy and there's so much of it between the layers of filo pastry.
I also drink gin and vermouth, mixed. I like red vermouth better than white. When I’ve drunk two or three of these, I feel I understand the world better. At least, I don’t mind so much that I don’t understand it; I can be tolerant of my ignorance. After three or four, I feel that my ignorance is not only tolerable, but possibly in some way noble.
Other times, I go into the middle of the town. There’s a bright Greek restaurant there, where it’s embarrassing to be seen alone—but I like the food: they bring moussaka with rice and with chips and with Greek salad and pitta bread with olives and hummus, so if you're hungry it's a good place to go. Sometimes I don't eat for two or three days, so I need to load up. With this Greek food I drink white wine that tastes of toilet cleaner, and they go together well.
I also take drugs. I’ve tried most things. My favourite is opium, though I’ve had it only once. It’s really hard to get hold of and involves a palaver with a flame and a pipe. I bought it from a boy who got it from a Modern History Fellow in Corpus Christi who had recently been to the Far East. The thing about opium is that it makes pain or difficulty unimaginable. If while you were under its influence someone were to tell you about Zyklon B and your parents dying and life in a dementia ward or Passchendaele, you might be able to understand what they meant—but only in a hypothetical sense. You might be interested by this idea of “pain,” but in a donnish way. I mean, I’m “interested” in the special theory of relativity; the idea that there’s a dimension in which space rolls up and time distorts and you come back from a journey younger than you left is certainly intriguing, but it doesn’t have an impact on me, day by day. That’s what opium does to suffering: makes it of hypothetical interest only.
I mostly smoke marijuana, which I buy from a boy called Glynn Powers. I don’t know where Glynn buys it, but he has several kilos of it in the built–in bedside locker in his tiny room in the new Queen Elizabeth block, a short walk beyond Fellows’ Pieces (i.e. grass area reserved to dons). The block was opened by a princess only three years ago and in the entrance hall of the building, next to the commemorative plaque, there’s a picture of her standing in one of the little cells, smiling at the president, with the bedside locker in view behind them. The brickwork of the wall is exposed because they discovered when the building was completed that the size of each room was smaller than the minimum required for single human habitation by the Department of Housing. By removing the plasterboard they were able to add just enough volume to go legal.
In his bedside locker, Glynn keeps polished scales and brass imperial weights. Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: you have been weighed in the scale, balanced and found wanting. Not that I’d argue with Glynn Powers or tell him he was wanting in any way at all. He wears a leather jacket with a thin fringe of tassels halfway down the back; he has a thick, trimmed beard and a motorbike. I have neither. He is studying Engineering. He doesn’t smoke himself, which I find sinister.