The curious incident of the Dan in the night-time

6 Aug 2011

It was late spring in 1998. I was renting a college room alongside my friend Dan. Wadham College - my college - has done so much of what they call "growing organically" over the years that the room you might end up with during the third year of your degree is both metaphorically and literally something of a lottery.

Wadham's rooms are all odd shapes and sizes, and one localized genre of oddness is exemplified by a small court you can see through the window by the food counter in the King's Arms pub. The north and west sides of the court consist of floor-to-ceiling windows topped by sloping lead, with concrete walkways, leading elsewhere, as basically a flat roof. The east is part of the King's Arms; the south contains both that little window and a room for one of the college fellows. Between this room and the west windows is an entrance into the quad from the much larger lawn area. The concealed nature of the entrance lends a vague air of exclusivity to these five or six rooms.

Dan and I shared the north side of the court's quadrangle: he was luckier in the room ballot, and so got the larger of the two segments. Both our rooms had no access to toilet or shower without going outside, through our doors which led out into the north-west and north-east corners of the quad respectively. Even my room was enormous; and deep, so our rooms shared a long wall running underneath those concrete walkways, through which when we were experiencing typical student angst I would play Radiohead and he would respond with Beethoven, Fleetwood Mac or, for reasons I've never worked out, The Strawbs. But we would largely respect each other's acoustic privacy and the situation worked well.

The floor-to-ceiling windows - actually slightly higher than ceiling, as they led up to a kind of Escherish lightwell squeezed in above the height of the walkways - made the rooms far lighter than they deserved to be, given the much taller buildings opposite. The fellow's room had an extra storey above it - consisting of two rooms, one of which was coincidentally my own from my first year - and this ought to have blocked out the light. But instead sunlight blazed through these great, theatrical panes. The only real problem, which was rarely a problem, was that noise could do the same.

Usually the quad was incredibly quiet: no road noise, nobody passing through, few if any parties. This suited Dan and me just fine. Both of us were hard drinkers at the time, as students tend to be, but we both needed the guarantee of a quiet retreat. But on one night in particular our peace was shattered, our safe haven invaded by noise. It was in the term after some of my major exams, but before some of Dan's; also, it was shortly after the major rowing event of the term. An unholy racket was pouring out of the open sash windows of my quondam accommodation opposite, up above the tutor's room.

In principle, you needed college permission to have anything over some number or other of people in your room. But unofficial parties are generally tolerated in the college, as long as they don't go on too late or weren't too loud. This was both. Midnight, 1am, 2am rolled around, and at some point I stumbled out of bed and into the quad in whatever nightwear I had, only to be confronted by Dan doing the same thing.

We both exchanged bleary glares, then looked up at the windows, then back at each other. Dan said something dryly condemnatory, and I groaned in response. Either I've forgotten the dialogue, or most of our communication had turned nonverbal by that hour of night, almost to the level of a shared psychic ability. At one stage we both simultaneously had the thought of going to see the porters; but then in the face of the annoyance of getting fully dressed, then trekking through college and back, we both again dismissed the idea.

I think it was me that had the water balloons, and Dan that had the idea. It could have been the other way round, although as I was part of a silly university society at the time, that did lots of silly things, I can imagine them being in my desk drawer rather than Dan's. Certainly we shared another look, and suddenly felt that the golden yellow light streaming out of the two belligerently wide-open sash windows formed targets too tempting not to try to hit.

We filled two balloons in the sink in one of our rooms and came back into the quad. The noise was still going on, utterly oblivious to our scheming below. Each of us hefted his own balloon, testing its weight and imagining it in flight. "On a count of three?" said Dan, and I nodded. He counted:




Together, we launched the balloons like shot-putts, each towards a window. Before they had even gone through the sash we were running, back towards our doors in the corners, back into our rooms, to lock up and lights-off and quickly go back to bed. But I could picture, and can still picture, those two projectiles, silhouetted by the rectangles of light they were heading inexorably towards. It's burned onto the screen inside my brain, looking for all the world like a transit of two planets across the face of two square suns, or even the picture on an inspirational poster with text underneath it saying "Mission accomplished!"

From inside my room I heard a couple of hoots, a confused shuffling, and then the music was switched off. Later on, there were voices in the quad; but nobody came to our doors. The next day one of our neighbours on the west side of the quad rather pointedly asked me and Dan about whether or not we'd heard anyone in the quad the night before. She was a rower, and a pretty, posh young thing, so it was suddenly clear to us that she'd been at the party, not tucked up in bed. But it didn't take much effort for both of us to reply in an utterly deadpan negative; after all, we hadn't had much sleep.

I'm not sure why I'm telling this story now. We were both being silly and irresponsible, and I'm not proud of my behaviour itself. But I do feel privileged to have been there, to have seen the story be born. I told Kate about it recently and she laughed at it, and was just as impressed as I was, at a cinematic event that seemed to have happened despite the interference of Dan's and my usual comic ineptness.

The story has its own life, sustained by those that experienced it and know what happened; maybe that's why I want to share this little bit of joy that I've only recently rediscovered: because there's suddenly only me left to sustain it. I don't want it to belong to just me any more, so now it belongs to everyone else who reads it.

Some of those crazy student days, Dan would shuffle over to my room like an itinerant. He'd occasionally find the door unlocked, or one of my windows open enough for him to squeeze through, and he'd break in to mess around with the contents of my desk. He would scribble on erasers, rearrange papers and confuse the hell out of me. Even now, every few weeks, I look for some stationery and pick up an eraser bearing the pencilled words: "J-P smells of fish." I can't bring myself to use it to rub anything out, and instead just put it back in the box.