Yesterday I sat in the garden doing the crosswords in the weekend papers. This was the first Sunday in my new home that I’ve been able to do that without getting drenched by the continuously pouring rain. Now the summer is officially over and the weather takes a perverse turn for the better. Although my house is quite close to a big road, it was very quiet all afternoon.
Columbo has really taken to the decking that occupies the far corner of the little garden. He lies on his back with his eyes closed, his big belly as white as my freshly pegged out laundry. Closing his eyes, he waves his paws around as he tries to catch butterflies or birds or whatever other imaginary creatures flutter through the dreamscape of a cat’s mind.
The weather is unsettling. It’s warm, but somehow the warmth doesn’t quite fill the air; somewhere inside it there’s a chill that reminds you that autumn is not far away.
I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn. I did it 26 years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today.
I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.
I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.
I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit”. Whatever that is.
Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.
I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realised that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.
I stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing.
After 26 years you get used to that feeling.