The first thing Rob would say to me on a Tuesday afternoon was, 'Any drugs, Daniel?' Always with that baritone giggle, and when I shook my head he would sigh loudly and ironically. He was a tall, heavily built man in his late twenties with a bushy black beard and small pointed teeth with gaps in between; he looked as if he should be wearing a bandanna and ear-ring. He was only there Tuesday to Thursday, which he called his midweek weekend. On Thursday evenings he would take the train back to Kent where he had a wife, a baby daughter and a part-time job. The question about drugs was meant to embarrass me, I suppose, in front of all the younger and cooler members of the seminar group. I was the only PhD student there, and felt out of place enough as it was. 'It's a university, isn't it,' Rob would say. 'Where are all the drugs?' And the younger, cooler students would smile and go on talking about Lacan and Derrida.
The drugs were being grown on sunny windowsills in North Slope and the Village, the residential areas on campus; they were being synthesized at night in locked chemistry labs in the great glass towers of PhySci on the edge of campus, or in Nissen huts in the nearby woods by graduate dropouts called Pete the Animal and Pharma Steve; they were being smoked and snorted and dropped by undergraduates in North Slope and by married postgrads in the Village, and by the everchanging occupants of the Occupied Buildings, and by dwellers in the labyrinthine hostel of Dunwich House in Helmston, and perhaps even by the Shrovedean 13. There were notices pinned to pillars in the English Common Room, alongside the Occupation Newsletter and the warnings about the imminent introduction of conscription and the bulletins of the Southdown University Cactus and Succulent Society (SUCSOC): What to do if you get busted. The drugs were everywhere I wasn't. But it was all part of Rob's act: he had cast me in the role of university insider because I was the only PhD student in the group, and therefore I had to know everything. Then he could be disappointed when I didn't, and complain about me in his urbane wheeze: 'I don't know what students are coming to these days, do you, Imogen?'
These conversations took place in the Common Room before the literary theory seminar, all of us sitting on low chairs with our knees level with our chins, polystyrene cups of coffee on even lower tables in front of us. We were due in Linda Fiske's office at 3.00, but it wasn't cool to be early. The trick was to drag the preliminary get-together out for as long as possible without actually provoking her so far that she came into the ECR and shouted at us. Linda was small, dark and when she was not shouting she talked very fast in a New York accent. There were no real sentences in her speech, but she used mysterious smiles directed at the ceiling as a form of punctuation. At times she seemed not to remember she was in a room full of people, and she had a habit of scratching one breast, which always caused Rob to try and catch my eye to make sure I had seen it. Rob was quite open about fancying Linda, and couldn't understand why I said she was too old. 'What is she, Daniel? About forty? That's a perfect age for a woman, I would say.'
Lacan and Derrida. One of the phrases Linda used to throw into her conversation was 'Lacan and Derrida', but because she never finished the sentences, I had no idea what she actually thought about them. It was, 'you know, Lacan, Derrida...' and then she would be on to something else. The truth was that I had never read either of them. And it was impossible to understand polar exploration without them - I knew that much.