Under grey skies, driven by the October easterlies, the rain sheeted down with determined inevitability onto the equally grey Warren Drive, in a small suburb in the north of Cambridge. At number 47 John looked out of his bedsit window wondering how the others in his college’s undergraduate year were faring. In reality, his room was much more of a bed than a sit. A faded pine single bed was pushed up against one wall and occupied a good portion of the room, while a matching wardrobe which apparently needed a little help to remain upright, lent against the opposite wall, tilted back by small wedges under its front legs. On the third wall, a gas fire hissed quietly next to a meter which also supplied a single gas ring. Next to the meter there was a sink above a tiny cupboard which contained exactly one plate, one cereal bowl and a single saucepan. A few pieces of cutlery completed the inventory. The room’s contents were completed by the table and chair at which John was sitting. They seemed somehow familiar to John, and after a moment, he realised they were made of the same veneered plywood he had seen in a reality TV program showing what life had like after the second world war.
He could hear the murmur of the landlady’s TV in the sitting room below through the thin carpet on the floor. He wondered briefly if that room was as meanly furnished as his, but he did not think he would ever find out. She had made it clear, on his brief introduction to the house, that he was expected to remain in his room and only make the briefest of sorties to the bathroom or his shelf in the fridge.
The raindrops continued to beat a rhythmic tattoo on the window. He looked out at his bicycle, checking that it was still chained to the railings that separated the surprisingly well tended garden from the road. He briefly considered an escape into college, but the sodden saddle and the thought of the 5km ride in the rain quickly dissuaded him. Besides he knew no-one who actually had rooms in the college. Even on the flat streets of Cambridge that journey seemed too much of a hill to climb, at least for the moment.
He found he had been holding his breath as he pondered his isolation. He exhaled with a deep sigh, turned to the first chapter of ‘Applied Thermodynamics and Fluid Dynamics’ and started reading. His studying only lasted a moment as he kept recalling his headmaster’s words,
‘Go to Queens’, my lad. Best college in Cambridge, I had a tremendous time there when I was demobbed! Hardly went to a lecture, spent most of my time on the river – when I wasn’t in eight, I’d be punting up to Granchester. Of course, that’s the advantage of a Classics degree – you’ll probably have to put in an appearance at least a few of your lectures if you’re doing engineering.’
‘A pity his headmaster had never been back,’ thought John, biting his lip. If he had, he would have found out that that particular college had outgrown its buildings and now placed its first-year intake in various lodgings and bedsits provided by the citizens of the town.
‘If only my surname had begun with R instead of S,’ he thought. ‘Then I would be next to my friend Bill in the allocation list and maybe they would have ended up in the same house.’
‘Bugger!’ he said.
Attempting to cheer himself up, at least temporarily, he put another 50p in the gas meter and prepared to toast a muffin.