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Authors: Anthony Camber

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BOOK: The Pink and the Grey
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I did not consider myself unduly predatory. I was a mere amateur, a part-timer in the lower leagues who occasionally enjoyed a rewarding run in the cup. Lack of success did not prick my drunken ego: I didn’t consider myself a miserable failure if I staggered home alone after Eddie or one of his boys sluiced us onto the streets. Where an opportunity presented itself, I indulged. It is true that the more I had imbibed, the more indulgent I became. Upon the calling of Time and the raising of the minger lights I could be less than fussy. A cavalier in search of a roundhead for hand-to-hand combat and heavy petting.

Of the trio of
Others
comprising that evening’s little group, body language and instinct indicated two were coupled: a hand on the small of the back, sustained eye contact, whispered nothings. The third stood fractionally apart, still engaged with the twosome but with one toe dipped into the frothing ’mocean of the wider bar.

On my promenade through the room I tackled another regular about who they were — who
the singleton
was. He shrugged. Ah well, I thought:
carpe diem
, before any other bugger does.
Set phasers on stunning
.

He seemed to grow taller as I approached, or perhaps I shrank at his beauty: olive, mediterranean, sultry, knee-weakening. He smelled of late Spring, of a garden at full thrust. Sober me would wilt and shrivel, his burning glance scorching into my heart, his black surfboard fringe dashing my lifeless body onto the rocks. I locked onto his deep brown eyes and roused the most confident and attractive smile from my armoury.

“Wotcha,” I said.
Wotcha? Dear jeebus.
“I’m Spencer. I don’t think I’ve seen you here yet. Not that I’ve been stalking you. Are you newly gay, or just here on the off-chance?”
Oh, arse,
I thought,
I’ve turned into Amanda
.

He glanced at his friends and grinned. “I’m sorry?”

Warp core breach imminent, Captain
. I stuck out my hand: in for a penny. “Spencer.”
Say nothing else, your foot’s in too deep already
.

He was British, and therefore obliged to shake and respond in kind: “Laurie.”

“Are your friends called Lift and Pavement?”
What in the devil’s name am I saying?

“I’m sorry?” He laughed. I fear this was
at
rather than
with
.

I ploughed on, treading a fine line between lecture and unconsciousness. “Laurie brought to mind the road vehicle, the lorry, and then truck, the ghastly American equivalent. And then other godforsaken Atlantic variations, like elevator for lift and sidewalk for pavement, and then my mouth just blurted them out you have very sexy eyes.”

“Spencer, right?”

I nodded. First goal achieved.

“I hope you’re not driving.”

“I’ve never driven a lorry in my life.”

“Ah, very good.” A gentle chiding. “I’ve heard them all, you know.”

“Heard them all what?”

“Never mind.” His smile warmed me pleasingly.

I thought it was going rather well at that point. We’d scaled that initial awkward hump and were hurtling towards an intimate conversation of some length, should the dice fall my way. I launched into the usual conversational gambit and attempted at all times to maintain eye contact.

In the next hazy time period I discovered many things. He was a post-graduate student specialising in early Romance languages, who’d spent eleven months circumnavigating the globe and teaching English along the way for subsistence. He was a keen and accomplished chef, helping out in his parents’ restaurant during vacations. His fringe would fall over his eyes were it not for his defensive eyebrows. And I was a fool and a wastrel and we had absolutely nothing in common, bar the obvious.

I blustered haphazardly, the drink sploshing about my brain. “That’s all rather exciting. As for my own self, I’m preparing to embark on a major marvellous project at St Paul’s designed to practically rocket our profile into the broiling stratosphere and take us sprawling to the next level in funding income achievement.”

“Sounds interesting. What are you doing?”

My hands began unaccountably to wave. “A, er, celebrity, charity, competition, er, thing. Lots of charity and mystery celebrity, wrapped up in an enigmatic competition. Hush-hush, early days, need-to-know, shush, that sort of solid business.”

“Charity competition? What, like a race? I did the London Marathon for charity a few years back.”

“A race? A race! Yes, a race.” Subtle was not the word. Paralytic,
paralytic
was the word.

“In Cambridge? Whereabouts?” Bless him, he seemed genuinely interested.

I touched his arm, his drinking arm, and a quantity of beer escaped. “Careful,” I said, “they make you lick it up. Whereabouts? Now then. This has yet to be confirmed, but we’re looking at, we’re looking at, all over. From St Paul’s, to, to, which college are you doing again?”

“I’m at St John’s.”

“Yes, St Paul’s to St John’s, that seems fair. And back again. No! Not back again. Somewhere else.” I pointed at his two friends, silent and smiling admirers of my delicate flirting technique. “You two, Pavement and Sidewalk, or whatever you were. Colleges.” My finger now alternated rapidly between myself and Laurie. “St Paul’s, St John’s, St John’s, St Paul’s, then where? Speak up. St, St, John, Paul—”

One of them looked at Laurie, and me, and said: “George and Ringo?” All three laughed.

“St John’s, St Paul’s, St George’s, St Ringo’s. Yes. That’s it. And we’re getting all four of them along, except the lookalikes. No, except the— hang on. No. Which one’s St Ringo’s again? Is it the little fiddly one by Darwin?”

“He’s joking with you, Spencer,” said Laurie. Rather kindly, I thought. “There’s no St George’s, no St Ringo’s. You should probably go home now, I think you’ve had enough to drink.”

“Yes, we should go back to mine. I have a bed and everything—”

“No. Sorry. I have a boyfriend. Go home, drink plenty of water, sleep it off.”

He gave me what I could only interpret as a
go thither
look.

My crest fell, shattering into a hundred and one pieces to be lost in the crowd along with my dignity. I attempted a blurred smile, nodded, muttered an inconsequence, and withdrew.
Curtsey to the sovereign and retire, and do not turn your back
. Self-destruct sequence initiated.

I decided to call it a night.

My autopilot set me on course at half impulse power from the bar to my room in college. At this level of alcohol consumption my flat half-way across town, with its proper bed, and hot and cold running water, and curtains that successfully blocked the light, was light years beyond sensor range. The tiny part of my consciousness still battling against the onrushing booze knew this and lamented that I would awake in a small number of hours thumping and banging and in a foul mood ready to heft skywards through the window any undergraduate presenting the slightest of grammatical squeaks. As chance would have it — well, no, as careful planning had it — I kept Saturday’s diary always mercifully free of such unfortunate potential.

I have no idea what time it was when with the usual grudging assistance of the night porter I tumbled through the college gate on St Andrew’s Street into Drybutter’s Court. Colloquially and commonly, Drybutter’s Court was known as Bottom Court, in contrast to its northerly neighbour Top Court, properly Prince Albert’s Court. West of these two lay my room in New Court, which spanned the remaining half of the larger rectangle that made up the college as a whole. New Court’s unofficially assigned nickname, Versatile Court, had sadly yet to catch on.

Bottom Court was the earliest part of the college: a cosy, almost claustrophobic enclosure of three-storey late-Georgian architecture in pale Portland stone, edged with cobbles and deep, tempting flower beds. Its central lawn, as ever, was impeccably tidy. Prince Albert’s Court to the north had a more Victorian feel to it, as one might imagine: a pompous curtain of fussy, neo-gothic stonework around a much larger rectangle of grass. New Court was a dull late-Victorian addition, prim and proper but with a saucy fountain at its core daring undergraduates to cross the forbidden greenery for a closer, more educational examination.

Unlike many other colleges we had no adjoining grassland outside the rectangle, no sprawling playing fields. We shared sporting facilities with other colleges and generally kept ourselves to ourselves. The college was always closed to tourists, at least these days. One main gate, on St Andrew’s Street, and one wider maintenance gate around the rear. Secure, private, monitored.

As was my habit upon returning from Bar Humbug I urinated freely and copiously in the flower beds I perceived to be most directly above Amanda’s office in the Admin dungeon, below Bottom Court. There were, of course, toilet facilities near my room, had I cared to use them, but I did not.

Humming drunkenly through the low archway linking Bottom and New Courts, I nearly ploughed directly into the poor Praelector, who recoiled in aged fright.

“Heavens above, Flowers, have a care, have a care,” he said.

“Praelector! Dennis! I’m not in the bushes tonight, sorry!” He was the chap who’d discovered me with
Scott — git
and landed me in Amanda’s bubbling pot. He was the longest-standing college official, supposedly sixty-nine but with a birth year that crept up annually and had done so for all the years I’d known him. The unofficial estimate was eighty-five, giving rise to the recurring and eternally changing college joke about a calendar year being sixty-nine eighty-fifths of a St Paul’s year.

For a man of either age he was skeletal of frame, and nary a grey hair on his head remained, but he was surprisingly robust behind the standard augmentations of his vintage: round-lensed spectacles of thin silver, and an unobtrusive aid in one ear. He always had a kind word — about most.

He chuckled, sweeping his ever-present gown around him. “Still up and about with your shenanigans startling people, eh? You know startling’s not good for me. Not at my age, at my age, you see?”

“Sixty-nine, Dennis? Barely more than a tiny little puppy.”

“It’ll be my birthday soon, I’m sure, I’m sure.”

I wasn’t so sure. “Already? Well, when the time comes, we should have a party,” I said, noticing the alcohol had switched on my touchy-feely arms. I consciously restrained myself. “Externally catered, of course. Unless you want a cake with melted polystyrene as an ingredient, in which case college would be fine.”

“No fuss, no fuss,” he said. And then conspiratorially: “How’d you get on with the Master?”

“Marvellously, if she’s listening,” I said. Then a whisper, close up: “I should come over for tea. We’ll have a splendid natter about the old— the old times. She told me you were upset and all a-quiver.”

“If only, lad, if only. My quivering days are long gone. Sorry I had to drop you in it. She rather strong-armed matters. It’s the cameras, the cameras.” He stabbed up at a metal sphere nesting in a nearby eave.

“Oh, it’s absolutely fine, all my own fault,” I said. “No hard feelings.”

“No, I don’t get those any more, either.” His head drooped.

I laughed. “Then why are you up so late, my dear Praelector? A touch of the Drybutters?”

“The wretched SPAIN thing. Research, research, as ordered.”

I drew back. “You too? Amanda led me seriously to believe I was to be the chair. Shouldn’t I be doing the ordering?”

He thought better of something. “I’m saying nothing. I’m saying nothing.”

“Well, I order you henceforth to your bed. And no naughty business.”

I was too far gone to be overly concerned about the Praelector’s words. The ubiquitous cameras straddled both the Archivist’s and the Master’s domains, and although
officially
they were for security and long-term insurance,
unofficially
and most obviously the Master kept the closest of tabs upon both her favourites and her least favourites. Regardless of all that bumfluff, I was already utterly aware that Amanda’s hands would be on SPAIN’s tiller however the formal roles were dealt. All I could do was puff hard on the sails and try not to vomit over the side.

My college room was silent, cold, orange and spinning. The walls leaned in ever closer. I weaved to the window and drew the useless curtains to darken the orange, and then attempted to identify the cleanest glass in my vicinity: it was the most recent to contain gin, unsurprisingly. I necked the few drops it contained — never one to waste the magical elixir — and clutched it the few metres along the creaking, distorting corridor outside to the shared kitchen: narrow, drab, cluttered, lit by an unforgiving neon strip, also spinning, but with a cold tap that worked and a hot tap that was several years past its prime.

I hung on desperately to the miniature stainless steel sink as I filled the glass, downed its contents, and repeated a few times until my stomach overflowed. Were I tremendously lucky I might stave off the worst of the upcoming throbbing, and my head might not explode brain all over the sofa bed like neuronic popcorn. I thought back to the bar, to my embarrassing failure even to connect loosely with Laurie and his companions, even to hold the mildest of conversations, and the dawning realisation of precisely how tremendously, ball-wrenchingly terrible it had all been.
 

There was Claire, too. She, at least, had prior experience of my excesses and I knew that the rift could be patched by promising to attend her
Coriolanus
or whichever was next to be ticked by her am-drams.

And as I gulped more water and stared into the accusatory plughole, I realised that amongst all the nonsense my mouth had emitted was the idea of a charity race. And more: John, Paul, George and Ringo, thanks to Laurie’s friends, the couple, Lift and Pavement. What if, I thought, we
select
two colleges to substitute for the non-existent St George’s and St Ringo’s? What if we held a race from St Paul’s, to the others in turn, and then back? And what if we could repeat the event each year?

BOOK: The Pink and the Grey
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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