In February 1979 I finished my last ever exam. I stood outside the Victoria Rooms on a bitingly cold Bristol afternoon as the sun set and vowed with all the molecules that I possessed that I would never again sit an exam. That assumed I passed the one I had just sat, of course, but the theory was sound enough. From sometime in 1972 when the idea of becoming a lawyer took root to this point my focus had been solely directed at the exams I needed to pass to qualify as a lawyer – in England and Wales, that was a solicitor.
When I say ‘solely directed’, I might be exaggerating a touch. There was always beer, rugby, books, food and, erm, say it softly, women to consider when listing the competition for my focus.
However it was the most important of the goals (well, apart from beer, rugby, books… you get the idea) and in my mind I’d made it – that wasn’t youthful arrogance to assume I had passed – though I was always pretty good at assessing how well I had done in exams – but rather a case of repeating a mantra in the hope that it comes true. I really, seriously, passionately, nay desperately did not ever want to sit in a wooden seat at a one man desk and turn over a paper, knowing that for 3 hours (or whatever the torture period was to be) I would be writing my hand to a muscular-skeletal standstill.
I was done. Fuck it.
I hated debriefing exams with other candidates, so I wasn’t about to hang around. Anyway I’d been taught in Guildford and tested in Bristol so I only knew a few of the equally desiccated souls who stumbled into the sepia light that day. I knotted my scarf, turned up towards Tyndall Road and headed for the Textiliste’s flat and dinner.
As I walked – ‘trudged’ would be a better description – past the curry house where I experienced my first vindaloo – the ‘a loo’ piece being the most resonant since I learnt a valuable lesson that night of the culinary rebirthing kind: eating a vindaloo will destroy you twice – first orally as you ingest napalm and second anally as you excrete curried isotopes.
Where was I?
On my way to the flat. It was a typical student set up in that it functioned but was barely habitable – the fact two ancient chickens were housed there (it being winter they were kept in the hall) didn’t improve the hygiene. And the Textiliste and her three friends were kind and generous hosts. They were lovely but, and here’s the thing, I wanted, nay I needed to move on. I had a job starting in April, in London and much as I loved my girlfriend, it was time to go.
You see, being involved in the worst exams of my life bar none – legal professional exams are horrendous – you take six exams over four days, each three hours long, each on a totally different topic – I had to spend all waking hours and some that were usually dedicated to sleep revising. This meant getting up before 6 every morning.
Which was fine as long as I didn’t wake the rest of the house.
Which would have been easy but for the chickens.
I’m not sure how many studies have been undertaken on avian dementia but if anyone knows of one currently let me know and I will pass on my experiences.
What I can say is that Little Hen and Baby Hen were a couple of egg yolks short of an omelette.
The morning sequence went something like this
- The alarm went off.
- I thumped at it in the pitch dark to silence it before the Textiliste woke – in point of fact, she is still incapable of sentient movements or speech before 7 am in all times zones both here on earth and in our section of the galaxy but you don’t want to push it.
- Moving slowly so as to avoid creating any draughts – note: the stability and longevity of my relationship with the Textiliste is based on many things: loyalty, a shared sense of the absurd, kindness but mostly two important characteristics – her lack of a sense of smell and my ability to avoid making draughts.
- I crawled across the room retrieving clothes as I went – remember this was (a) a student flat (b) it was February (c) it was in Bristol which was easily the coldest and dampest part of the UK at the time, maybe still.
- I dressed myself while moving – I had approximately 4.7 seconds to dress before hypothermia commenced because, as my father would have put it, it was ‘cold enough to freeze a witch’s tit’.
- Leaving the bedroom, I headed downstairs for the bathroom – a pee was needed. I do not know at what age a pee became the opening gambit on each day – maybe after I discovered alcohol – but even at that godforsaken hour my bladder was demanding my attention with the persistence of a particularly persistent toddler
- This manoeuvre required a detailed knowledge of the topography and structural composition of the stairs: to whit, which floorboards creaked. While none of the human occupants would have been disturbed, Gallus Gallus was a different matter. The tiniest squeak and you could be sure you would hear a throat being cleared. Perhaps an explanation is needed here. Hens usually cluck, the don’t crow, not like cockerels and despite being assured these two were hens they both enjoyed some robust crowing if they believed morning was on the cusp of breaking.
- Assuming I made it to the ground floor without the Hens starting off I then had to deal with the toilet. Initially I was flummoxed by the fact – common in the UK – of the light switch sitting outside the toilet. How could I switch it on and then open the door without light flooding into the hall? I knew – and this was proved to be a truism – that if those retched layers of eggs spotted even a scintilla of light they would burst into Macbethean cackles waking both the dead and, worse, the Textiliste’s house mates. I tried, on a couple of occasions to do without the light which merely changed the problem from a noise one to an accuracy one. Yes, I could have sat down but I was 22 and my masculine tendencies, in a house of women, needed some careful nurturing.
- The solution turned out to be unexpected – I became a competent canine mimic. I would slide inside the loo, light off, and reach out through the narrowest slit that allowed my hand to remain operative; I would switch on the light at the same moment as I growled much like a rottweiler would at its dinner, if still breathing and the Hens, who had begun their wake up routine, would gulp and self silence; this procedure was reversed as I departed the throne room.
- I was pretty pleased with myself until one morning when, unbeknown to me, the Hens’ owner had woken early and was, bleary eyed, making her way to the toilet as I crept down the stairs. I went through my, by now, polished routine, curtailing any noise, relieving myself and letting myself out again, only to be confronted by a steaming Geographer. ‘What the fuck are you doing’ was the gist of it. To her I was a Hen-worrier, someone with a penchant for terrifying old birds. My explanation didn’t cut it. ‘Just go outside and pee on the compost’. That I might end up with frostbite didn’t wash.
And thus I found myself packing up my motorbike panniers and heading home to Hampshire before undertaking what I imagined would be a tedious and not necessarily very successful flat share hunt.