Thank God I Didn’t Inherit My Father’s Nose
With the smell of St Mary’s College toasties clinging to my clothes, I surface through the basement door into the car park. At almost midnight it’s too early for the freshers to be staggering home from Durham’s night club du jour, and the grounds are silent. The Cathedral is waiting for me; a cut-out fortress with huddled, angular lines of turrets, almost black, like the sky’s own shadow. I welcome the familiar stand-off – the stony heart of the city muses on how long it can hold me here, transfixed. It knows a poet when it sees one. The moon is curiously yellow. It’s settled directly above the Cathedral – they’re in this together. Sirius, the dog star, sits obediently at his side – another conspirator.
The wind intervenes. Like the gloved hands of great aunts it taps and slaps at my arms and hips, trying to bundle me down the drive way. I turn my back on the cathedral-moon-star scene, ashamed that it’s pick-pocketed a few metaphors and similes from me, and start my journey home. It’s a well known fact that it takes twenty minutes to walk anywhere in Durham – wherever your starting point or destination – twenty minutes.
I have a habit of writing my autobiography in my head whilst I walk – a slightly egotistical indulgence, yes, but it keeps my mind off things. “Chapter One: Thank God I Didn’t Inherit My Father’s Nose...” I usually skip right through the past and present tenses. This past month or so I’ve been mulling over my future... Well, an ideal one at least. And it’s not really that interesting – never going to be a glossy, hard-backed, Richard-and-Judy-recommend, top-of-your-Christmas-list type memoir. Just an archetypal, middle-class life with a dark-haired lawyer husband who looks remarkably like Ed Stoppard... OK, maybe an accountant who looks like Martin Freeman.
Two kids – a boy and a girl. Over the years two names have festered in the soft cardboard box of my mind... Though they do sound prettier than mould; Evie, for a girl, and Oliver, for a boy. Admittedly they only came into being because my mother vetoed Jasper, Christophe and Élodie. They will probably have double-barrelled surnames because I promised Grandpa Brian that if my cousin, Sam, the Hainsworth family heir, turns out to be gay I’ll do my duty as the eldest grandchild and keep our name going somehow – even if my kids get teased at school and asked why they’ve opted for a free education. Ed/Martin occasionally morphs into Benedict Cumberbatch... But I decide Oliver Hainsworth-Cumberbatch is a bit too long for all the forms I’ll have to fill in.
My pseudo-feminist sixteen year-old self suddenly materialises, brandishing a worn copy of Gilbert and Gubar’s ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’, and as the would-be future dissolves I find myself heading along South Street. The cobbles are so tightly packed together I expect one to burst out at any moment. Striking me between the eyes, it’ll leave my sister with the responsibility of double-barrelling her kids’ names. I pass a couple walking on the other side of the road, they seem to be made entirely of multi-coloured scarf as they huddle together, and I can’t tell whose frozen breath is whose. It’s another well known fact that one out of three Durham students will meet their future spouses at university. Yesterday Samantha asked me if I’ll feel like I’ve failed if I finish my degree still single. I’ll admit university hasn’t exactly panned out like I hoped, though at least, so far, I’ve avoided the boyfriend lobotomy that has struck down so many of my friends back home.
This boyfriend conundrum, unfortunately, is a fairly frequent topic of discussion. Last week my house mates and I were bemoaning our membership to the ‘Forever Alone Lounge’ – a home where the terminally-not-getting-any are made as comfortable as possible. However, my membership was thrown into jeopardy rather unexpectedly a couple of nights ago when a certain dark-haired Geordie physicist talked me into bed... Although that was as far as we got.
My sister was scandalised when I told her – scandalised for all the wrong reasons. “You mean you didn’t...? But why?” She was shouting down the phone and I could hear her flatmates discussing a newly-acquired shopping trolley in the background. I was given a few moments to muse on this before she added coyly: “Was he not posh enough for you?” I didn’t move for a long time after she’d hung up... Why didn’t I? I suppose I’m not really cut out for that sort of thing. It wasn’t that he wasn’t posh enough for me... it’s that the situation wasn’t poetic enough.
Yet brief bursts of memory keep creeping into my conscious; he’s brushing my hair away so he can kiss my neck, and I turn my head to reach for his lips... We’re lying in bed and he’s running one toe gently up and down my ankle... Moments of intimacy that seem foreign in the context of two people so foreign to each other. Suffice to say, I rather enjoyed my short-lived escape from the Forever Alone Lounge, and returned quite willingly into the arms of the orderlies the next morning.
I expect people will scoff at my ‘abandon all hope’ approach, the Lounge, after all, though met with much acceptance and hilarity by my housemates, was my idea. “You’re only twenty” has already been uttered several times by visiting relatives. The problem is they don’t realise how often I hear that, and have heard it for the past three or four years: “You’re only seventeen”, “You’re only eighteen”, “You’re only nineteen”, “You’re only twenty”... Tell me, when does ‘only’ just bugger off?
The viaduct looms in front of me and Mitchell Street appears on my left... Has it been twenty minutes already? I cross the road – there, just past the parking metre, lies home. I’m surprised to see the living room lights still on and find the door unlocked. Arriving in the living room, I’m met with a chorus of “BEX!” – Cat and Adam have waited up for me.
“We recorded ‘Glee’ for you,” Adam says slyly - looks like he’s figured out one of my guilty pleasures.
“Come and look at these houses!” Cat chirps – I’ve never seen her up this late during the week, let alone looking so cheerful. It’s infectious.
I sit next to her and she slides her laptop onto my knee, beginning a running commentary on dishwashers, double-glazing, and broadband. I’m trying to listen to her, but her giddiness is warming the whole room, and all of a sudden I’m smiling, though I’m not sure why... And a line of Geoffrey Hills floats gently, carefully onto the floor of my mind: “This is plenty. This is more than enough.”