18 very short years ago, I became a mum. As I cradled my precious new born son day after day during our endless first summer, there was a dreamy trance like existence to our early months, perhaps because of sleeplessness but also taking in the enormous change that had hit me. My perfect calm little baby with the big brown eyes staring solemnly at me. Surely, he would never grow up and move away?
And now, here we are, university beckoning for him, those years have indeed flashed by. We are drowning in student kitchen kits – if only Wilkos had been around in the 1990s, stationary, food parcels and other essential paraphernalia.
The time slippiness of it all, is not only the realisation that my baby is now 18 but that it is 25 years since my own university odyssey. Memories. My 18 year old self still visceral and tangible.
Covid 19 has altered the university experience for the class of 2020. No fresher’s – at least how we knew it, no crowded lecture halls, no parties. Parental ministrations don’t just include lectures on safe sex, daily vitamins and having fun but now how best to manage/cope with a potential local lockdown.
It has knocked the carefreeness out of it all.
Arrivals in halls of residence up and down the land are now carefully choreographed to maintain social distancing rules. And as we plan and plot my boy’s departure to pastures new, Cardiff for him, rather like entering a kaleidoscope of time, memories swirl upwards and I re-visit my own first term.
I arrived at my first student house on a grey dismal day. No place in halls – they were for overseas students. I had, therefore to take a gamble on a private house. A housing list supplied by the Student welfare office, I secured my room over the phone and had whizzed down with an older friend who happened to study in the same town to pay the deposit.
My poor mum’s face fell as we pulled up outside. My belongings strewn all over my dad’s Vauxhall.
“Oh love” my mum whispered. “It’s a dump. I can’t leave you here.”
“Yes you can”, I replied jumping out. 18 year olds don’t notice the pervasive smell of damp, the overgrown garden, the dinginess. “Stop fussing. I ‘ll be fine”. I almost pushed her out the door as she made her way tearfully back to the car.
There was a freshers party to prepare for. Luckily for me, a lad from my home town was also studying at Nottingham and we had a prior agreement to meet up, A familiar face to help break the ice.
I walked down with a new housemate Lucyanne, after spending at least 4 hours getting ready, wondering if I could re-invent myself as some sophisticate from the city.
The usual advice, lifted from Brideshead Revisited is not too stick with those you meet in your first term, least you spend the rest of your time shaking them off. I met Vics at that welcome party. Perhaps we are the exception that proves the rule but we became and remained joined at the hip, both of us working class northern lasses, catapulted into god awful private student housing. Through Vics, I met the rest of what would become our little gang. The seeds were sown.
We enjoyed plenty of evenings out that first term away from home, and even managed a lecture or two. Our Student houses were situated in what was, in 1990s Nottingham the ‘red light’ district. Wondering home, eating takeaway chips and gravy from a toga party here or a gig there, we would say ‘hiya’ to the prostitutes, whose patch was our street corner – they would urge us to stay safe, not too go out roaming on our own at night. Strangely enough, or perhaps naively I didn’t feel unsafe living in this red-light district, a world apart from my sheltered rural Yorkshire life. It seemed so full of life.
There were always students lurching home, sometimes pushing a nicked shopping trolley or carrying a traffic cone that would take pride of place in random student kitchens or living rooms. Obligatory poster of Che Guevara on the wall.
Befriending local prostitutes may have been strange but some of our fellow students took ‘larger than life’ to an entirely differen level.
Paul, in the room next to Vics, a brilliant friend throughout our student years. Nevertheless, despite being the same age, he took it upon himself, as a man who knew life hailing as he did from Oldham, to be a father figure. He made us our tea on many occasion (boil in a bag cod in sauce. I was so impressed. Sophisticated). He escorted us past the scary Rottweiler’s house two doors up and as the dog foamed at the mouth, yanking at the long chain that precariously secured it within the yard. “Don’t bloody panic.” He would tell us as Vics and I scuttled behind him. He was as scared as us.
Then there was Dan. Dan the mature student, taller than Zeus with a mane of blonde dreads. We never did find out what Dan was studying, something ‘arty’. He had a pregnant girlfriend back home and became a father at the end of our first term.
Oh my God Dan is sooo old I would think, now I am at time, when 28 sounds remarkably young. Dan’s great friend and housemate, Pete had a penchant for dissembling the bowels of motorbikes over their student lounge. There were no keys, all being lost by various housemates and guests, entrance and exit being purely by the lounge window. Many a person banged on that sitting room window to gain admittance. The horror on parents faces.
The characters the parties, the laughter. My son has a guaranteed place in halls, adventures for him in dodgy housing with access via windows, disembowelled motorcycles or dark lonely paths with broken streetlights. Students appear to be more looked after.
He will have his own characters, his own life lessons and of course being a student in the age of corona will bring its own challenges.
But I can’t see his world colliding in his first term with dodgy locals, or the unifying experience of sharing dirty digs. We did have fun. we all did plenty of growing up.
And there is something to be said for being thrown out of the neat into grunge. For me and my friends it formed the backdrop of our fun.