ten years since I was a fresher there

Life Yesterday I spent the day in Leeds visiting the three houses I lived in while I was at Leeds Metropolitan University studying Information Studies. It's ten years since I was a fresher there and I wanted to acknowledge something which has had more of an effect on who I am than anything else. I kept thinking about two words on the train yesterday morning. Pilgrimage and tourism. They're both self explanatory, but I think the latter was more relevant. Rather like someone visiting Thomas Hardy country I was visiting Stuart Ian Burns country - visiting landmarks in the same way, a trip into my own life of interest to only one person. Me.

I began university living in halls on Beckett Park. Think Dead Poets Society. Think Georgian red brick building in the middle of the countryside. Think self-enclosed campus where you could spend a whole week and never leave, everything to hand. I was in Macauley Hall, and I probably had much the same experiences as anyone else. Fell for the wrong people, said the wrong words at the wrong time, did all the wrong things. Good times. I knew that the place had stopped being a student hall two years after I left. The university lacked offices, administration and classrooms and they would be cheaper to run anyway. So now it was the Faculty of International Studies.

I was nervous as I walked up the hill towards the campus. Some of this came from a fear of being caught trespassing. There weren't any security gates and theoretically any member of the public could walk in. But I kept having visions of someone asking for I.D. and when none was forthcoming being frog marched off the premises.

But I relaxed slightly as I approached the hall. The building hadn't totally changed. The muddy brick on the walls had been sandblasted at some point and now had a slight artificially modern look. The ad-hoc gravel car park had been replaced with tarmac. I stood outside and glanced up at the window were my room had been. One wall had a bookshelf with folders on. I stepped up to the back entrance, pressed a green button and the doors opened for me. In front was a sign asking all visitors to report to reception. I walked past this and up the stairwell. Concrete had been replaced by royal blue carpet throughout. All of the walls had gone from the dark yellow I remember to a dark sky blue. I entered my floor and was disconcerted to find that there were far less doorways than before. The building had been a hospital originally, and the student rooms created from a partitioning of a ward. The walls that I'd known had been taken out and recreated for the new usage, so my room door no longer existed. No number 26 any longer. But I stood in front anyway and looked at the panoramic picture of Singapore which hung in its place.

I remembered sitting in the doorway of the room reading, with lunch sometimes. I'd once seen a advertisement in which a girl had sat on a windowsill drinking a Coke watching the world go by and it had been my version of that. Sometimes it had meant I was like Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern) trying to comprehend the main action as it passed me by. I remembered the time there had been an electricity blackout one night and the few of us who had been left in the building had sat in the hallway gathered around some candles talking and waiting for the lights to go back on. I remembered the series of signs some of us had for our door which directed visitors to whoever's room we were actually in at the time.

I was a bit of a traveller in the hall. After the initial week when everyone was friends with everyone else, various groups of people drifted together based on mutual interests. I wasn't exclusive. I was still friends with a lot of different people and I loved that. If I'd been less safe with my finances and even less kooky in my choice of beverage (tee total fresher - such a waste) I probably could have been out with different sets of people on lots of different nights. I remember being well liked by some of the people some of the time. I'd help some international students with their English; I'd help others with their relationships. In terms of connecting with people it happened more here than at any time since. Given the chance I can work really well in groups.

I strolled around the rest of the campus taking in the differences and similarities. The student union had changed. It was more - idiosyncratic. Far more rooms and bars and shops and cafes. The little bank which had been so handy while I was there had gone, replaced with counseling rooms serving the mind rather than the pocket. I thought about having lunch in the main cafeteria but didn't want to push my luck so I bought a couple of bottles of water in the shop instead. There were more computers in the main campus library and they seemed faster than the old machines I'd used all those years ago to look at the old Empire Magazine website. Like the union, the same departments and sections were there, they'd just been moved about. The ongoing improvement programme which had begun while I was there was still in place, with incomplete corridors and scaffolding. Some projects are probably never meant to be finished. There is a bus stop outside the library now and a regular service into the city centre. I winced as I remember the number of times I'd walked the long walk up the hill to my room with bags of shopping.

The walk I made to the next house was the same route I would have taken from lectures to my house at the end of the day. It meant I could visit Headingley 'centre'. When I'd gotten off the bus earlier I'd been amazed at how Raj Putts, the Kebab shop I'd visited at 3 in the morning once for a salad pitta was still there. The rest of the town was mix of the old and new. More charity shops. The local Safeway had gone from having uniform shopping isles to a more adhock feel similar to a service station. The KFC was just the same. But then I entered unknown territory as I found a Subway and a Starbucks, and a fabulously relaxed Oxfam bookshop all couches and coffee tables.

Then I got lost. Or rather I forgot were 69 Richmond Avenue was. Somewhere along the line I'd developed the idea that it wasn't directly off the main road, took the wrong turn and ended up walking manically through the back streets looking around furtively for something, anything familiar. Then I remembered that ironically I'd done exactly the same thing the first time. I stopped, asked someone for directions and ten minutes later I was standing front of the second house on the tour.

It hadn't changed at all. An old Victorian terraces house perched precariously on a cliff-steep hill, three floors in crimson red brick. It shouldn't have developed. That would require the landlords to care about properties it rented out to students. But I hadn't been quite so prepared for how close it was. My barn-sized room had been on the bottom floor and there had been a small hole in the corner of one of the bay windows. It was still there. The landlords had done nothing to repair the house and that seemed right somehow.

I didn't get on with my housemates, or rather they didn't like me. Three southern girls who thought they were royalty, one northern girl who aspired to be royalty, and me who couldn't care less. They'd seemed perfectly nice when I'd been to see the house with them. But when I visited the place during the summer to do some work as a cleaner at Headingley Cricket Ground during one of the tests something wasn't right. On the first night, although they were all there and they knew I was coming, when I dropped my bags in my room and went to warm myself in the kitchen, none of them came down to say hello. I shouted up a greeting, but I could just hear them talking. A bit later one of them came down to get some milk. I think she said hello but she didn't say much else.

A friend invited himself over for some of the cricket cleaning coin. When we returned on the last night of work my new housemates were waiting for us (having ignored our presence for the previous four days). This plastic shelving thing in the bathroom had collapsed and evidently they thought we'd done it. They demanded to know why we hadn't cleaned it up and what we were going to do. When I denied anything had happened they just deafened themselves through all of my questions as to why they had been ignoring me until eventually I swore at them. They swore back and so the pattern emerged for the rest of my time in that house.

I was essentially living in a bedsit with four other people. But it didn't ever feel like home. Not in the way my room in halls had. I was like a lodger in my own house, an interloper. A stranger to my own housemates. I'd leave my room and suddenly their uninteresting conversations would stop. I would go into the kitchen and they would leave - and not subtly - once, they literally got up and left. They had the upstairs rooms and like mice I'd hear them creeping about. Whenever I saw them around campus, even if it was a corridor in the library without anyone else about, they would pretend they didn't know me. I wasn't welcome in their lives and they were being pathological about it.

At some point I started to avoid them, just so that I didn't have to deal with the fact that they were avoiding me. I'd wake up at 6:50 in the morning before any of them so that I could go to the bathroom and get my breakfast. Then go back to bed for an hour before I got dressed and went to college. Then I stopped cooking meals at home and started eating out all of the time. Go to a friend's house directly after college, until some days I'd leave the house at 8 in the morning and wouldn't get home until 1 am that night. This way, I think, I might have gone through a three week period without seeing any of my housemates.

Suited me fine and I'm sure they were chuffed; and because of the situation I stopped being a stay home kind of person. I got to know my next door neighbours for a while (a house full of girls, ironically) and spent a lot of time in the weird chemistry of another friend's flat and I mostly had a great year. And at least the bills were always paid on time.

As I leaned on the wall and worked my way through the raspberry muffin I'd bought at Starbucks, looking this house, I began to understand why I'd taken this trip. Even after all these years when I remembered some of things which had happened in that house I think I'd built them up to be more important that they actually were. I looked at the concrete stairs up to the front door and thought about a Friday night early on that year when I hadn't made any friends in the area yet, didn't have anyone to go out with and had just sat there drinking a cup of tea, lonely as sin. But that was just one night.

I hadn't ever walked from this house to the next. I knew roughly how they related geographically so I just plodded in that general direction. By now I was talking to my friend Chris on the phone and I was paying more attention to him than where I was going and whether that was a help I'm not sure but miraculously I stumbled upon the final house.

38 Harold Walk. I looked at this place almost without any emotion. Another terraced house, this time on the end. Dirty red brick. Rust stains on the wall from drainpipes. This was slightly different to the house I'd left seven years ago. One of the downstairs windows has metal bars across it. This had been the most vulnerable place in the house and I was pleased that this landlord had finally taken steps.

It had been entirely different to the previous year. My housemates were perfectly rational human beings and I got on with most of them very well. It helped that there was another man about the house as well as three other girls, so I had somewhere to go when the periods started. We all had our own lives but we also went out together. I cared about them and like them a lot. I bonded particularly with one of the girls who was half-Tai. She was charming and funny and we went places together and she eventually fell for a Frenchman. One of the happiest times was when my housemates took me out for a meal on my twenty-first birthday, being plied with white cider before hand and asking one of my companions if the restauranr was supposed to be spinning around.

But the house was perpetually a tip and the bills were never paid on time. And somewhere along the line the bonds between the housemates which had been so strong towards the start of the year started to drift apart. Ironically, in comparison to my time in the previous house, everyone else started going elsewhere a lot more, sleeping overnight at boyfriends or girlfriends places instead. Somewhere along the line I followed (going out a lot more I mean). But I was still able to talk to them individually even if they couldn't talk to each other. I don't really remember the end of that year. I remember passing on my address to the guy because he had his name on the bills and I wanted him to get in touch with what I owed. I'm sure I must have said goodbye to the rest of them, but I can't see the details.

I wasn't at Harold Walk for very long yesterday. The area seemed rougher than I remembered and I wanted to go quite quickly. I headed up to the cafes of Hyde Park Corner and walked into the city centre. To some extent it all felt anti-climactic. In my head I suppose I thought I'd been recreating the scene in Mike Leigh's Career Girls when they met their old housemate sitting on the step. Had I imagined seeing my Tai friend in the area trying to recreate the one time she'd been happy. Or that I'd feel some kind of closure, the violins playing as I drifted off into the distance?

Neither happened. I went into town and met a friend who I'd worked for in my student job at the time and we went for a meal. We talked about old times and the future. And since she was one of the few people who had been a constant outside of any of the houses, been a real support at times when it had all gone to crap, it seemed right she should be there at the end of this day of nostalgia. She reminded me that my time at University wasn't about the houses or the homes. It was about the people who had been there with me.

[Acknowledgements to Mike Leigh and Vicki who made a similar journey earlier in the year and inspired me to do the same]

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