Monday, 6 March 2006

Within a room, within himself

I suppose every university has them. In fact I imagine that every course has them, every hall of residence has them. That person who doesn't quite fit in, no matter how hard they try.

On my course, it was guy called Ian.

After those awkward few weeks at the beginning of the year, when you are feeling your way from lecture to seminar to tutor group, people start to form little groups. Everything is new, so you look for some people to cling to: some people to help you find that elusive room on the fifth floor, to help you find that section in the library. Some of the bonds you make then will last a lifetime, but sometimes it is these friends that you make in those vulnerable first few days at university are the people that you spend the rest of your course trying to avoid. You might hate them now, but you needed them then. You needed a friend and they were there. In those first few weeks everyone is looking to make friends. That's your window of opportunity. If you don't get in with a group then, it's only going to get harder as the bonds begin to harden around the social circles. You don't want to be left on the outside as the wagons are circled.

I suppose Ian just missed the boat. I don't actually remember him at all from those early days. I remember meeting Olly as we both sat on the corridor floor outside our tutor's office. We started chatting then, went for lunch together, and we were friends for the next three years, even sharing a flat in our term in Venice. I can tell similar stories for how I became friendly with Mark, with Paul, with Dom, even with William, but I don't remember meeting Ian at all. Perhaps if Ian had been sitting on the floor outside that office, then things would have been different.

Ian was a funny fish. He was very tall. No taller than me, but somehow he looked taller. He was all arms and legs. When I did first notice him, it was probably because he was trying hard to make friends with us. We were all loafing around together waiting for the start of our Italian class, and Ian was trying to join in with our conversation. As is often the case, we were comfortable with each other, and we looked upon this interloper with a mixture of disdain and amusement. The way he looked probably didn't help. I was still finding my own way fashion-wise, and was probably still wearing a dodgy heavy metal t-shirt and a leather jacket, but Ian was something else. He looked like he had stepped out of a 1980 bratpack film in which he had played the geek. He had this kind of raincoat/tracksuit thing with fluorescent flashes and the sleeves pulled up to his elbows. Not a good look, but made worse by the breton fishing cap he wore. A cap, I might add, that didn't hide the bald patches on his head. I thought at the time that he had simply given himself a disastrous haircut, but looking back on it, I think he could well have had alopecia. Perhaps that explained the cap.

He was awkward. He tried hard to join in, but we wouldn't let him. It wasn't that we were the cool members of the class - far from it. It was just that he looked a little bit odd and we were happy enough with our little circle of friends. He looked like the kind of person who would smell. He didn't smell, as far as I knew, but he looked like he might. Why would we want to include him? It's cruel, but it's human nature to make yourselves feel better and more secure at someone else's expense. We let him sit with Heather, as we all picked a row of seats near the back of the class. I don't remember doing it specifically, but I'm sure we probably laughed at him behind his back.

This probably carried on for most of the year, and by the summer, I think he had more of less got the hint. I would happily say hello to him and have a chat, but he knew his place and didn't try and sit with us now. It was something of a surprise when I saw him in the lounge of my hall of residence one night. Some of the other guys appeared to be teasing him, but he was steadfastly ignoring them, and was focusing his attentions on one of the girls. I said hello in passing, but had other things to do so I kept walking. It was only when I came back past the lounge a couple of hours later and saw him still there that I wondered what was going on. He was just sitting there in silence. Staring. He looked uncomfortable, as though he didn't know what to do, but he also looked like he was going nowhere. I grabbed one of the guys and asked what was going on. Oh, he's just a weird guy who's hanging around Steph. I think he's beginning to creep her out. Look at him though. Isn't he pathetic?

Something snapped in me. I may have been happily excluding Ian for months, but the sight of those rugby playing cretins openly laughing at him made me sick to my stomach. They knew he had no chance with Steph, but they wanted to watch his humiliation. Steph was beginning to look a little spooked by the whole thing. She clearly wanted Ian to leave, but she didn't want to embarrass him any more in front of the baying crowd. Perhaps she didn't know what to do either. That was it. I was going to finish this. I walked back into the room, and suggested to Ian that he might like to take a walk with me. He looked a little confused, but he knew me and so he complied. I walked him out of the lounge, down the stairs and escorted him to his hall of residence. He was staying at International House, home of the foreign students. Ian was British, but somehow that was perfect that he should be in a hall surrounded by other misfits, other fish out of water. Perhaps they were comfortable with each other. Maybe there were fewer cliques when everybody was an outsider. I think I probably pitied him. Part of me had wanted to rescue Stef from this unwanted attention, but mainly I simply couldn't stand to see Ian make such a fool of himself. He had appeared oblivious to the taunting, but somehow that only made it worse. I tried to chat to him as I walked him home, but he seemed somehow a little dazed. I made sure he was okay, dropped him off and walked back.

Briefly, I was the toast of the hall. I had rescued Steph from the weirdo, and had a great story to tell my friends when I went to the next lecture. I had acted instinctively and out of pity, but now I was able to use the whole story to confirm what everyone thought they already knew about Ian: that he was the course weirdo.

Life went on much as normal, until one sunny morning early in our second year when we were summoned to the departmental office for an announcement. We dutifully gathered and were told that one of our fellow students on the course had been hit by a bus whilst he was cycling to his digs in Coventry. Unfortunately he had gone underneath the wheels of the bus and had been killed. This was of course shocking news.

It was Ian.

A memorial service was going to be held at the chaplaincy on Wednesday afternoon, and Ian's parents would be there. I was determined to go and pay my respects. Part of me was afraid that no one else would go, and I was worried how that would seem to his parents. As if bereavement wasn't enough, surely they didn't need to see that their son had not made any friends on the course.

I didn't go. I found something else to do. I was probably messing about with my mates in the library or in the bar. I hoped that lots of other people had gone, but I suppose the simple truth was that I didn't care enough about him to go.

That was in 1993.

On Sunday evening, as I drove along the A46 on my way home from Oxford, we went past the exit to my old university and I found myself thinking about Ian.

I should have gone.

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