In 1975 I began my three year odyssey at an undergraduate law student at Bristol University. Those first few days as I settled into university life remain very vivid. Today I recall my first evening in hall and a life changing encounter.
I was more than a little nervous, going down for the briefing and then dinner. I’ve never been great in new situations. My imagination was both vigorous and unusually for me pessimistic. I had managed to kill time until the scheduled start at six but as we all know, one of those lesser Newtonian laws applies to every clock: the speed at which you want the hands to turn is in inverse proportion to the speed at which they go. Hours soon became minutes and by five forty Time was in danger of going so fast I might well have gone straight into tomorrow. Not that that wouldn’t have been welcomed.
In my time killing moments I speculated on who my immediate neighbours might be. There were two other rooms at this end of the corridor, the remaining space being taken with a shower, a bath and two toilets. Convenient if occasionally smelly.
At just before six I heard voices. It sounded like they came from the room opposite, a burst of hearty, not to say horsey laughter, the sort two confident familiar men of a private school background might make.
I shrunk back into my shirt. Not only did the chap opposite sound like he played polo and had staff but he already had a friend around. Not much chance of me finding a like minded spirit there, I thought. I waited until the sounds disappeared and steeled myself to make an appearance. This was sure to be ghastly.
I don’t at this distance remember the briefing. Some worthy hairy confident men wearing beards beyond their ages spoke. They made jokes that weren’t, tried to sound like everything was just so much fun, much like dentists convince you that any discomfort is entirely coincidental. But of the substance, Nope nothing sticks.
Similarly the dinner. The dining room was modelled on an Oxford college hall, a comparator with which I was marginally familiar from my failed attempt to secure a place there – like so many Bristolians I was a failed Oxbridge candidate – a badge of inverted snobbery in later years. All it did however was emphasise how out of place I felt.
After whatever we were served – and generally the food was okay in my time there – some of us newbies decanted to the bar. You passed the TV room and headed for a gloomy converted corridor lacking windows and, from the smells, competent plumbing. I bought a pint, sat on my own, spoke to a large sticky ginger headed scientist from Kent who was trying to remember the name of the one person he knew – or so he said – and swore blind that the course he was taking – which may have been Chemistry, but equally it could have been Applied Bollocks – was so easy he was a shoo-in for a first. He dropped out after six weeks having spent most of his time in the bar drinking his grant and still failing to remember his friend’s name.
After half an hour and shortly before nine I headed for my room. I cleaned my teeth, put on my nylon pyjamas and sat on my bed, assessing the day. Yes, I was that cool.
Overall it rated a three. Out of quite a large number. Tomorrow, when we registered at our faculty at least I’d meet other first year law students and have something in common with them. Maybe I’d find someone I liked and, better still liked me.
I picked up a book – I tended to absorb sci-fi back then so it was probably an Asimov or Clarke or Bradbury – and prepared to write off day one, hoping for an uptick on the morrow.
Someone who must be escaping the Stasi or about to give birth hammered on my door. Before I could think of answering or getting up to open it, it flew open.
Swaying briefly as if surprised he’d managed the challenge of turning the nob, a grinning man with sleepy eyes fell across my room and was only saved from a complete collapse by the intervention of my desk
‘Hiya. I’m Dave. I’m across the corridor. Who are you?’
My visitor having returned to the upright now wobbled uncertainly back towards the door in an uncontrolled attempt to push it closed. He hung on to it grimly, as if at sea in a gale. I silently admired the fortitude of its hinges. ‘I’m drunk. What are you doing?’
I made the correct assumption he didn’t need to explain the concept of reading in bed and said, ‘Law.’
‘Me too. That’s brilliant. I…’
He lost grip on the door and disappeared into the corridor, his progress apparently arrested when he crashed into the wall opposite. This must be one of the hooting Henrys I’d heard earlier, I surmised.
Dave reappeared, holding his elbow and grimacing ‘See you tomorrow. I’d better…’ once again he left my room as if tied around the waist by some malevolent elastic.
His absence was momentary as he returned, catapulting himself across my room, wishing me a good night before pingponging back into the corridor and disappearing.
I got up to shut the door. I checked the corridor. He’d gone, who knew where.
Oh well, I thought, at least I’d know someone at registration, even if they were an uncoordinated drunk with a laugh like a horse with haemorrhoids. Little did I realise how inseparable good friends we’d become.