People from the past are mythical beasts: you don’t see them any more; your recall of them is patchy; they’re frozen in the tableau of their time.
The mirage of one such caricature, Dan, popped into my head this week-end.
On a desk in the far corner of the third floor of Edinburgh University’s main library is carved an unambiguous message: ‘Fuck off home, Ya’s‘- presumably at the hand of a minority indigenous student overwhelmed by the influx of southern jessies romping around the local Ceilidh bars in wine-coloured cords and brogues.
The composition of the flat share allocated to my boyfriend, Rupert, in his first year, was a fair reflection of this: 4 Englishmen in a 4-bedroom flat, the slight twist being that Rupert wasn’t a Rupert, but a stocky Yorkshire farmer with a beard- an impressive and worldly 21 years to our 18.
Rupert’s flatmates, by contrast, were bonafide Ruperts: a brooding Wagner enthusiast (later to become boyfriend number 2); a boy (Walter?) with the spectacles, clothes, and intellect of a Bletchley Park code-breaker, who hung oil paintings on his wall; and Dan.
Dan was the apotheosis of the inept public schoolboy, possibly due in part, sadly, to the absence of a mother in his life. A rarefied soul, it was quite possible he’d never been exposed to sunlight, or the general public. He was tall, platinum blonde, very thin, and very white, so Rupert called him The Duke.
The Duke was the first person in my life to objectively classify my mediocrity, wearily declaring one day that I was ‘so middle class’, with the emphasis on the ‘so’ to clarify I was in no danger of troubling the upper end of the spectrum. While he may not emerge from this anecdote a hero, then, still he was no fool.
Rupert found the Duke to be an endless source of fascination and amusement, though he never went to town on it in a cruel way. He was genuinely stupefied that such a creature was in existence, and living in his midst. We’re talking here about a young man with mud under his fingernails rooming alongside one who had spent the past 10 years engorging his brain with books, from the hard bed and cold showers environment of a drafty elite boarding school- one who said things to taxi drivers, such as ‘How many sovs will that be then, Guv?’
Three events (unfairly?) define The Duke for me. It’s a shame, because imagine how many more there must have been! The regaling of them was immeasurably improved by Rupert’s filter, equal parts incredulity and laughter.
Flat communal meal night. Everyone’s given a dish to prepare. The Duke is given the simplest, as it’s doubtful he’s prepared anything more involved than a Ginsters sausage roll, since he’s arrived. Everyone sits down, ready to tuck in. The Duke’s potato salad looks good. Miniature baby potatoes with salad cream and maybe even some herbs: the boy done good. Until, wait: ‘Jesus Christ, Dan. You know you have to cook the potatoes, first?’
The boys are watching some day-time. Urgent knock on the door. ‘Guys, watch out. T.V licence people are in the building.’ Rupert gets up and turns off the T.V. He’s thinking about where to hide it in the flat, when The Duke yanks the plug out of the wall, wraps his skinny frame around the bulky T.V., and charges out of the front door to take it to another flat. Which he succeeds in doing, thanks to the licensing hounds stepping to one side so he can bundle past them up the stairs, red in the face and panting under the weight of the contraband set.
Rupert is in his room. After a while, he clocks the sound of running water that isn’t subsiding. He investigates, to find The Duke standing in the kitchen running both taps full blast. ‘What are you doing, Dan?’ he asks, already suspecting the answer’s not going to help. ‘Fuck the water authorities,’ says the Duke. ‘Just fuck them.’
Ah, Dan. Where are you now?