Parallel lives

February 2, 2007

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue.

The father

Rain - that was the highlight of the Christmas holiday. Rain - and wind, and a bunch of people shut indoors together who should have been able to go out for long, healthy walks. So it was with relief that I heaved open the office door and slumped into the faded glory of my academic life again.

The heating had not been on for ten days, so everything had that cold, damp plaster smell. I scanned my meetings schedule for the week ahead. Top marks to whoever planned a curry for Friday night, but a raspberry to the idea of an "all hands" meeting at 11am on the first day back.

E-mail was a pleasant surprise - even the spam merchants must have been off work over the holidays. Only a dozen or so messages had managed to make it past the digital barricades of my inbox filtering. I chose one at random.

"Hi!", it said with a bit too much glee, "just a note to say how much we enjoyed your performance at the Christmas dinner! They say it is always the quiet ones! Mike says to tell you that the pictures came out great and he will have them on the intranet by lunchtime."

I pondered this for a moment. Of course, I remembered getting to the department's end-of-term bash at the White Hart. Someone bought me a pint before we went in to lunch. I had the beef, and some pretty good claret - there was plenty because a lot of people were driving home afterwards. Then I had Christmas pud and brandy with the coffee. What then? I know we walked somewhere in the rain - that pub near the cinema. We took over the sofas in the back bar. More beer there, I think, and a whisky.

My arrival at the meeting was greeted with applause, which I acknowledged with a traditional gesture. Apparently, in the final pub I had made a stirring speech fervently supporting the research assessment exercise - in the style of the vice-chancellor. The pictures of the scene were clear and convincing, as was my impersonation, which laid heavy emphasis on some of his more pronounced mannerisms. Of course, from where I was standing I couldn't see the v-c leaning on the bar with the registrar, but Mike's photos pick out his expression perfectly. Now, does the job section start on page 30?

The son

I'm back again. Don't ask me why. All I can say is that exams look a lot closer from this side of Christmas than they did three weeks ago.

Then, I could look at the heap of books that needed reading without even a grimace. But each time I dare to examine it now, it's grown viler and more threatening, like the portrait of Dorian Gray.

So with Christmas and New Year over, and everyone's hangovers beginning to fade, it seems a good time to recount my end-of-term celebrations.

The evening started at some point. When, I cannot say. My mate arrived a few minutes after me and we broke open the first round of the evening.

Opinion is divided as to how many rounds we got through.

Several hours and an undetermined number of toasts later, my friend gave me the cue that it was time to leave. The cue covered a lot of the table before he got his hands over his mouth. Thankfully, it was live music night, so everyone was looking the other way. At this point, we figured it might be an idea to go quickly.

Safely back in halls, I remembered that, what with one thing and another, I'd forgotten to get lunch that day. By that point I was past feeling hungry and simply lay down on my bed for a few minutes' quiet contemplation. My bed was spinning in a manner liable to cause a breach of the peace, so I decided to lie on the floor instead. The floor was similar.

The great thing about an en-suite bedroom is that you're never further than seven feet from a toilet. And, as I knelt there, observing the interesting colours and feeling like I'd just swallowed wire wool, I reflected on my good fortune. I was also mightily pleased with myself for remembering to close the lid before I flushed.

Come the next morning, I was on my feet at 7am, feeling fine and ready to pack up and go home for Christmas. My mother, it turned out when I phoned her, was not usually awake at 7am on a Saturday. The tone of unbridled joy at hearing from her eldest son was a little strained.

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