Wednesday, 24 February 2016

How Bev Met Carol - a universal experience...

I stretched up to the ceiling and came down slowly into dog pose.  It had been a while since I’d viewed the world this way.  As the mat slipped beneath me and my calves cried out with an excess of lactic acid, I was aware of a thumping in my head that had nothing to do with Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, which blasted from someone’s room below.  Under the bookshelf I noted there was an upturned, greying woodlouse and, more interestingly, what looked like a ten-pence piece.  I reached out and, momentarily destabilised, fell in a heap of Max Wall leggings and Debbie Harry dyed-blonde hair.  I caught sight of my feet, complete with sensational new footwear. It was a moment made perfect for singing along with Stevie Nicks and admiring the cleanliness of my skirting boards.  My stomach muscles flexed in time with the music and I wondered whether I would ever be the kind of girl to pluck my eyebrows, wear chiffon or enjoy bananas on toast.
To my mild surprise, and before I had considered rising from where I had fallen, the door to my private student abode opened and Sue from next door, who had yet to learn the art of knocking and/or waiting, laughed her special one-note exploding laugh and stepped inside. 
“What on earth are you doing?”  she asked.
It crossed my mind whether someone who wore home-knitted sweaters, flat shoes and no makeup had any right to ask such a question.
“Yoga.”  I smiled.  Naturally.
“In those?”  She indicated my recently purchased, beloved platform shoes that rocked, quite literally.
“Did you want something?”  I asked, propping myself up on one elbow and remembering jumbled quotes from works of genius by Oscar Wilde. 
“Oh, yes.  Yes… I did, actually.  I don’t suppose you’ve got any coriander?”
She was right.  “Clean out of fresh herbs today.  I’ve got Heinz tomato soup, Heinz Big Soup and Ambrosia rice pudding.  Any use to you?” 
Sue had a mouth that froze easily.
“No good?” I wiggled my eyebrows.
“Not really.  I’m making curry.” 
Sue was always making something. 
“Sorry,” I said.
“That’s all right.  See you later.” 
“Probably will.”  I smiled my sweetest smile.

It was lunchtime.  I’d have to walk on to campus or open a can.  I’d gone for the fully-catered option as I knew I would spend any available cash on clothes or books, and could not be trusted to budget for essentials.  At least this way I wouldn’t starve. 
With netball practice at two o’clock, I’d have time to check out the boys in the union building, get a boring salad at the canteen, and still be in time to meet the girls in the sports hall.  All of this duly came to pass. 
The sports hall echoed with energetic voices and smelled of sweat and rubber.
“No kit?”  Belinda bounced up and panted at me.
“Haven’t got round to buying one.”  And, I fear, I never shall.
Belinda laughed and slapped me on the back before she passed the ball to Andrea and sprinted forward. 
I was wearing a tennis dress and good pants.  My trainers were pink.  Most of the others had on track-suit bottoms sensible tee shirts and boring footwear.
“What have you come as?”  It was Carol.  We’d met and taken tea and toast together in her room.  Real butter on hot toast – Carol had talked me through the importance of both.  I hadn’t worked her out.  I liked her a lot.  I was woefully struck dumb by her candid question.  I had come as myself, obviously.
Carol was blonde, like me, but without the aid of chemicals.  All that would change, but for now, her hair was thick and curly, symmetrically styled and smelled of flowers.  Carol was sporty, with proper thighs and square cut shoulders.  She could run, jump and barge for England.  She was wholesome. 
We took our positions and the whistle went.  I prowled the edge of the goal area, fending off my opponent, and took a vicious ball to the midriff.  The goal-attack swept it up (the ball) and scored. 
“Dozy bat,” said Carol.
I fumbled the next pass too, and began to sweat.  Then, catching a sly bounce with unexpected alacrity, I took aim and shot from the edge of the circle.
Jaws dropped at the swish of the net.
“Stone the crows!” said Carol.
It was my only moment of glory for the next forty minutes.
At the end of practice, I looked for my muscular friend but she’d already left.  I was bereft.

Back at my hall, I knocked at Jackie’s door, eager to prove to myself that I was a nice person, who deserved to have friends.
“Oh, hi Bev.  Do you want a coffee?”
“Tea, if you’ve got it.”
Jackie was a large girl.  I listened to what could only be her thighs rubbing together as she walked across the landing to the kitchen.  It reminded me of my younger self, when I had been an undeniably overweight schoolgirl. On her bookshelf there were volumes on psychology, a tin of Quality Street, and a photo of two very hairy dogs.  Her desk was tidy.  A man’s dressing gown hung on the back of her door and a pair of Charentaise slippers protruded from underneath her bed, which was made.  I wondered whether I could make a run for it. 
     “Hope you like Earl Grey.”
Jackie had thin, silky hair, glasses that made her eye-lashes look like enormous spider legs, and a perfectly formed cherubic mouth.  When she smiled, it was like a blessing.  A blessing I didn’t deserve. 
“Are you working?”  It was a little late to ask.  And one of the dullest questions known to Man.
“I’m just finishing an essay.”
Don’t ask what it’s about!  “Oh, what’s it about?”
Jackie bathed me in joy and more blessings.  “It’s to do with The Stanford Prison Experiment.”
Don’t ask what that is. Why not?  It sounds interesting.  “What’s that?”  I sipped my tea.
“Well…the essay is entitled Analyse the Impact of Situational Variables on Human Behaviour.”  She paused, and took a moment to fix me with a spidery stare.
I considered choking and/or spilling my tea on her nylon rug.
Half an hour later, having learned a great deal about power, dominance and how important it is to avoid social experimentation, Jackie asked me whether I’d been bullied as a child.  It was then that I realised I was the prisoner and she the guard. 
Don’t tell her you were an overweight schoolgirl with facial scarring!  “I…”
There was a knock at the door.
“Bev?  Are you in there?”
Jackie’s silence made my own throat constrict.  I would not be able to answer.  My body felt weak.  Had the tea been drugged?
“Jackie?”  And, thank the Lord and praise the angels, Sue turned the handle and opened the door.
“Oh, hi.  I just wondered whether either of you had a colander?”
Jackie had, I hadn’t.

     It was becoming obvious that I would not find my university soulmate unless I went out and sought her out.  Doing my best Trikonasana, taking as much care as I could not to pass wind, all I could think about was Carol.  There was something about her.  Something that was so frank and real.  Something stable.  If only I could find out whether she had a sense of humour. 

     I sat at my desk and wrestled with an excerpt from Beowulf.  Losing focus, I stared out at Sue trying to reverse her Skoda into the last remaining parking space.  The Skoda had over a hundred wiper speeds and a heating system fit for Siberia.  It was a most ugly-exotic vehicle.  Sue loved her Skoda. I watched her mount the kerb in a third attempt to perform a parking coup, and found myself wondering at how easily I could be distracted from my work.   I forced myself to concentrate.  Three hours passed.  I knew not where they had gone, nor where my mind had been.  I had finished my reading and my essay had written itself.  In truth, I had dozed off and dribbled on a battle scene.  All that fighting and slaying.  And no jokes.  I couldn’t wait to move on to Chaucer and his bawdy tales. 
Head down, I got on with my work, promising myself a celebratory bowl of rice pudding and a dollop of strawberry jam when the final full-stop had been placed. 
Where did I leave the can opener?

Assignment completed.  Pudding bowl scraped clean.  It was time to go out.  There was a band on in the union.  It was cold outside but I was more used to severe weather than most, having spent my formative years on a mountaintop on the Welsh border.  She was only a flying instructor’s daughter but she certainly knew how to …
Walking along in the darkness with the alien trees whispering desperate warnings of rapists and blood-thirsty mythological beasts, it was easy to regret wearing a mini skirt and high-heeled boots.  I tried to finish my hilarious ditty:  how to…use her joystick;  how to…soar the ridge; how to…set the trim.  No, it wasn’t working.  I laughed anyway, lost in a world of nerdy glider-oriented humour. 
Wait just a moment! Could it be true? There was a figure up ahead, moving towards me.  This focussed my attention nicely.  I had a key in my pocket that could take out an eye, a ring on my finger that could double as a knuckle duster and a ten-pound-note I could use as bribery.  Just then, a bicycle came alongside and slowed at my side. I screamed. 
“Hi gorgeous, it’s only me.”
“Shit! You scared me!”
“Want a ride in?” Ian was lanky, unkempt and pronounced his vowels in a way I’d never heard before, but he was friendly and knew how to maintain his bike.
“Sit here and I’ll go in front.”
With Ian’s buttocks in my face and my legs akimbo, I dangled, gripping my rescuer around the waist, and felt the full punctuation of a saddle made specially for men.  It was a short ride, so I kept quiet until we got to campus, mapping the potholes with my coccyx.  The doors to the union building stood open and I could hear tuning up coming from the first floor.
“Thanks.  Are you coming in?”  I dismounted à la Olga Corbett and took a bow.
Ian grinned then looked as though a thought was taking him over. “Maybe later.  Got a game going on.”
I nodded.
“Five of us.”
There was nothing more to say.  First year boys had a lot to learn.
After a quick visit to the Ladies, I checked my pigeonhole and found the usual university propaganda, rolled up and likely to stay that way until found by one of the campus’ pyromaniacs. 
I slipped off my treasured shag-pile jacket and went up to the bar. 
“Hi Bren.  Working tonight?”  Bren was a mature student, and skint.
“Needs must.”
“Can I leave this?”
I handed her my jacket.
“What can I get you?”
“Special Brew with blackcurrant, please.”
I joined a group of people I knew and found out that a boy in my English tutorial group had been kicked out of his digs by a maniacal girlfriend with an elaborate imagination and a concise vocabulary.  Apparently, she threw his snipped up belongings onto the street from their first floor apartment because he was ‘too much of a twat’. 
“You don’t mean Sean?”  I was vaguely interested, I’ll admit.
“He the one who likes to read up on phallic symbols in Virginia Wolf?”  This from Erudite Elise.
“The very same.”
“He’s not bad looking,” said Rebecca.
I licked my lips.  Sean was a dish.  And, phallic symbolism aside, I liked the intellectual type.
“Claire’s got her eye on him,” said Bonnie.
“But she’s got Greg!”
Greg was even more of a dish than Sean.
The conversation was circular, based on hearsay, and ultimately unrewarding.  My friends were birdbrains, picking at tid-bits.  I was a birdbrain too, but of a different variety, with less straightforward appetites.  I was looking for beauty, literary truth and the kind of exotic romance only Brian Ferry would understand.   I took a gulp from my purple drink and raised myself to my full height.
“I’m going to have a look at the band,” I said.   “Anyone coming?”
No one was.
Past the notice boards and a couple of shabby postgrads with beards and frightened eyes, I pushed open the doors to the main hall, which was in darkness, apart from where five swaggering young men were about to start up a new song.  I knew immediately which one I would be dancing for when the time came.  Long blond hair, tall and skinny with a great voice.
When Carol came and stood beside me, I barely noticed until she spoke:
“Want some cider, you lovely tart?”
Carol was dressed in a full-length kaftan and had a pink flower behind her left ear.
“Sweet or dry?”  I asked.  Please be my friend!
“Dry, of course.”
“Then top me up!” I sound like my dad!
It turns out that Special Brew and blackcurrant with a Bulmer’s top is a mix only the more discerning amongst us would appreciate.  Carol was obviously impressed by my adventurous nature.
“Can’t ruin a drink you’ve already ruined,” she observed.
The music was loud.  Several fanatics took to the dance floor.  After a few minutes Carol joined them, eyes closed, with the smuggest smile I’d ever seen playing mind tricks in the flashing lights.  I siddled up.  It always took me a moment to get over myself when I ventured onto the dance floor.  I was a Sister Sledge kind of girl, or a Police fantasiser.  Heavy rock required a degree of grunge I had not thought to bring with me on this particular evening.  Smoke rose from the front of the stage, caught in my throat, and before I knew it I was struggling to breathe.
“Where’s your inhaler, you absolute cretin?”
I pointed and mouthed, “Bar.  Bren.”
Carol was back within seconds and I was saved.  Carol, my guardian angel.
“More cider?”
The music drummed in my bones, the Salbutamol bathed my constricted alveoli and I knew I’d found someone I could be myself with.

Confirmation, if confirmation were needed, came in many forms that first term.  I was a literary addict with little use for critical commentary by people who knew better than I did the subtexts of Shakespeare and Racine.  Bold and blonde, my raw, young mind absorbed exquisite lines from Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ and scoffed at Virginia Wolfe’s promised visit in ‘To the Lighthouse’.  I lived in a wonderland of imagery, and dreamed of beautiful boys with long noses and pretty hair.  I liked fluffy jackets, tight tee shirts and stretch jeans, worn with platform boots.  Carol understood maths, budgeting and men with potential.  Her fashion choices were experimental. She planned for the future.  I planned for the next few minutes.  Carol talked about a career in the city or going into farming with Dave, her long-suffering boyfriend.  I wondered which shorts I should wear with my rucksack on a trip around Europe.  But we both loved rice pudding with red jam, Sting, dry cider, and staying up late to put the universe to rights, generally spiralling into random hilarity and drunkeness. 

Carol would get a good degree and I would not.  She would work hard and make copious notes during lectures.  I would read mountains of books and dominate tutorials, fluctuating between brilliance and crass, outspoken stupidity, harbouring a stubborn inability to take advice.  We were as alike as marshmallow and pickled onions, but our friendship was unassailable and infinitely fascinating.  Life without Carol would have been unthinkable, not to mention as dull as Margaret Thatcher’s knicker drawer (I presume).

There are three adventures in the Bev and Carol series (available in ebook and paperback):

One Summer in France

Bunny on a Bike

Stranded in the Seychelles

Happy days!