Saturday, 10 March 2012

Novel: What to Do If You Get Conscripted

I didn't so much attend the university as haunt it. Even on days when I didn't have to go in for the Tuesday seminars or my meetings with Linda, I often felt a compulsion to get the train to Fulmar and cross the underpass where I had found my five-leaf clover to the campus, whose boundary was marked by a deconstructed moat of rectangular concrete ponds of different sizes arranged in some pattern I couldn't quite work out. ('It's fractal, Daniel,' Rob said when I asked him once, giggling under his breath in the knowledge that he was only puzzling me further.) The ponds were shallow and almost completely lifeless: only the largest had a small cluster of waterlilies that never flowered, as well as a sediment of copper coins glittering on the flagstones of the bottom. Undergraduates were said to fall into them from time to time, or to throw each other in - the nearest building to the ponds was one of the Students' Union bars, known as the Adorno Arms. There was nothing to keep me in the ponds area, and I would walk on through a succession of Modernist courtyards separated by glass-doored barnlike buildings which were only there to be passed through, as far as I was concerned. I still hardly knew which was which, Culture and Community Studies, Development Studies, Social Sciences, all of them called by hard-to-pronounce acronyms that made them sound like Eastern European intelligence agencies. After these, I would arrive in an open space, with a grass covered bank on the left-hand side surmounted by the library. Even though it was winter, there were always clusters of students sitting our lying on the bank, muffled in their thick Oxfam-shop overcoats. Most of the rest of the space was lawn, with paths snaking across it in no clear direction. Physical Sciences, Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences were great fortifications on the right, each on its own hill, served by their own roads and carparks. Just in front of them was a smaller building known only as the Occupation: I never found out what had gone on there before it was occupied. It was almost as if the University had laid it on specially for AgitProp training. On the other side of the lawn was a set of communal buildings including a refectory, a launderette and a general store run by the Union. Further away still, almost buried in the downs, were the residential areas of The Village and North Slope, the former giving way to the woodland where Pete the Animal and his customers operated, the latter backing on to the playing fields and the sports pavilion.
     By the time I got as far as the Central Lawn I had already come too far, at least if I wanted to go to English; it was in the last of the barnlike of the barnlike buildings, behind me. But perhaps I wanted to go to the library, or the coffee shop - on these days, I never exactly knew. Sometimes I would walk around the snakelike paths for an hour at a time - the layout made it easy not to get anywhere without consciously changing direction. And not to get anywhere seemed to be what I wanted.
     Days went by like this: a couple of hours in the library reading bits of books on polar exploration and literary theory, an hour in the coffee shop, a walk to The Village and back, a browse in the University bookshop, and the whole cycle all over again. Once I was there I found it impossible to leave until it got dark even when I had nothing to do. More than once I arrived on a Sunday without even realizing it, to find most of the buildings shut and the campus deserted. More than once I was the last person in the English Common room, standing among the shin-high furniture reading the notices pinned to the pillars in the half-dark and the smell of coffee,cigarette ash and whatever it was the farmers put on the surrounding fields.
     The FREE THE SHROVEDEAN THIRTEEN posters were looking tatty now; perhaps the Shrovedean Thirteen had already been freed - in any case, it was no longer a fashionable cause. Even the posters about what to do if you got busted, along with Rock against Racism, Vegetarians against the Nazis and SUPPORT THE OCCUPATION were hardly visible any more, not taken down (which hardly ever happened) but buried under new layers of warnings and bulletins. The Women's Centre were still holding their own, along with the Lesbian and Gay Social Club and the Das Kapital Reading Group. But most of the new posters were about Afghanistan: March for Peace, CND, What to Do if You Get Conscripted. I had read the last one many times, trying to decide whether I was a pacifist, a believer in the concept of a just war, or just someone who didn't want to be killed. The last option had no legislative basis according to the poster; besides, it didn't make much sense, since, as Imogen argued, we would all be killed whether we joined the army or not. The most convincing defence I could think of was that any army desperate enough to need me in its ranks had no chance of winning anyway, but I didn't fancy my chances of making that understood over the sound of It's a Long Way to Tipperary.
     I was becoming obsessed with the Cactus and Succulent Society, SUCSOC, as obsessed as I was with the starlings.


  1. sweet. Really enjoyed the change in pace. I have this Si-Fi idea about a man hired to road test a virtual reality, Daniel feels a little like that to me. Like some one who doesn't quite believe the world is real. I used to feel that way a lot when I was in my 20's.


  2. Found myself doing the description of campus I didn't manage to get into the Five-Leaf Clover section. Which meant I didn't get round to describing SUCSOC - will do that next time. Still no real plot, but it will have to wait a bit longer.