29 May, 2006

Table salt

For two years I shared a house with three other people, all of us undergraduates at Liverpool University, all of us having first met in the same corridor in the same hall of residence.

Heaven knows why, in retrospect, the four of us ended up continuing a far from obvious association beyond the business of hanging around together because we'd been assigned rooms next to each other. After all, the only thing we had in common was our surname.

Thanks to the alphabetical allocation of first year accommodation, everyone down our end of the corridor fell into the J-M category. My actual surname (not Myles) being one of the commonest in the land, you won't be surprised to hear this part of the hall was crowded with similarly-titled students, which at least made for a talking point once the "what A Levels did you do?" conversations had been exhausted. But aside from this shared inheritance, none of us four had any particular common interests or bonds, and it was through expediency rather than anything more noble that we stumbled into agreeing to go into the second year sharing a house together.

If I had been a less timid, more confident person at the time I would never have consented to such an arrangement; indeed, there were a couple of people further down the corridor, again with the same surname, who looking back I'd have had a far better time living under one roof with, not least because one of them was doing precisely the same degree course as me.

But I had neither the foresight nor the courage of my convictions to do what I really wanted. I guess I also felt I'd thrown my lot in with my immediate neighbours from the start, and hence had to see things through to the end. After all I'd signed up for these friendships by being the one who, on day two (day one being too much of a trauma), had knocked on their doors rather than vice versa.

What followed was, perversely, two of the most solitary years of my life. I felt lonelier during that period of living with people than I have ever done since I began living on my own (9 years and counting). You could explain this away by reasoning that you only notice how less sociable and more secluded a life you lead when you are right up alongside others doing precisely the opposite; when you're completely by yourself you've nothing against which to measure things. You could also explain it, however, by assigning blame to the arbitrary system which had thrown us together in the first place.

I have already written something of my memories of housesharing just off Penny Lane. In effect the whole two-year period, both there and later at a far nicer place a few streets away, seems decades ago. This was a time before mobile phones, before digital and satellite TV; a time when none of us had personal computers, when none of us had a video recorder, when it was thought OK to not have central heating or a washing machine, when a bus ride anywhere in the city cost just 40p.

It was also a time when one of my housemates disappeared for half a year with a septic toe; when kids pushed fireworks through our letterbox; when all the pipes burst during the winter of 1995 flooding the kitchen and ruining all the posters I'd stuck up on the wall; when I tiptoed into one of the others' bedrooms at night to switch off their stereo; when our scullery was invaded by giant slugs and I used up three cartons of table salt to kill them; when my rent was £30 a week (it is now roughly seven times that amount); when I ate half of my housemates' birthday cake without telling him; when I agreed to accompany one of my housemates to see Cardiff City play away at Wrexham and at Chester and in both instances my feet shrank because of the cold; when the police once stopped me for walking down the street "suspiciously"; when all my fellow tenants fell in with regular girlfriends and the place became more like hotel than a house; and when I became a vegetarian to the ignominy of everyone else who'd just shelled out on a deep fat fryer.

There were good moments, of course, but in relative terms they always seem to be outweighed by the business of putting one foot in front of the other and counting the days until the next time I knew everyone would be out of the house and the place would be mine.

One of the three, Steve, I did get along with and have stayed in touch with, visiting him and his other half in Birmingham a few times. The other two, though, I haven't spoken to or heard from since the day they packed up their belongings and drove off in late June 1997. I occasionally wonder what they are doing now and if they ever occasionally wonder about what I am doing now, and why they chose to spend two years of their life living with me.


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