Copyright Oggbashan January 2018
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
It was early January. I ought to ask Cathy to go with me to the university’s Valentine Dance. But how can I? I’m broke and the tickets are fifty pounds for a double. There’s no way I could afford that.
It’s not that I’m a spendthrift. I’m surviving on a student loan with little help from my parents because all three of us are at universities. I have an additional grant but that only covers the activities I have to do in the university vacations. I had spent what little money I had going home for a family Christmas. This is our third and final year at university and my student loan is pushed to the limit.
The seven of us sharing this student flat are still in university provided accommodation, six of us because we can’t afford to rent a flat or house elsewhere in the town. Why the seventh one, Martin, is with us? I don’t know.
This is not the first time but the most painful reminder of just how much my education is costing me. It’s a shame. I love Cathy and I would like to dance with her but… Fifty pounds would mean not eating for about three weeks or doing without essential textbooks.
I even brought my evening suit from home. I know she has a ball gown because I saw her ironing it in the shared kitchen. Was that a hint? If I don’t ask her soon, someone else will, and I’ll have lost Cathy forever. Would she understand?
I’ll speak to her tonight if I get a chance to be alone with her. That won’t be easy. There are seven of us sharing the kitchen and bathroom in this part of the student hall. The kitchen sometimes seems as full as Heathrow airport’s departure lounge when flights are delayed. There are more than the seven of us because many of our friends who live out in the town meet in our kitchen before going on to the pubs and clubs.
Sometimes I wish I could go too, but I can’t afford more than one or two nights out in a month. It’s not just the money; it’s my workload. I envy some of the others doing Arts courses. They seem to be able to finish their essays in no time at all, have fewer lectures and can miss one or two without affecting their grades. I can’t. Every lecture is vital because each covers a separate aspect of my Science course. One missed lecture is gone forever and copying someone else’s notes doesn’t give the same level of understanding. It’s not fair. This is the second term of a three-year course and already I’m feeling the strain.
I am being too harsh. I will have a guaranteed post when I qualify, at a good salary, and with a company that will ensure I develop further. Most of the Arts graduates will struggle to find any job relevant to their studies if they find any suitable job. I just wish that life wasn’t so hard now.
Enough moaning. I’ve got to get to the next lecture. Tonight, I hope I’ll be able to talk to Cathy. She has to work on her essays because she stayed at home longer than she should to go to a family funeral. If only everyone else goes out, particularly Martin. I am worried that I might lose her to Martin.
Martin has everything going for him. He is tall, blond, blue-eyed, athletic and has money. His father gave him an expensive sports car to travel to university. He is urbane, sophisticated and has mixed with the rich and famous all his life. Just being in the same room as him makes me feel inadequate. How must he look to Cathy?
I often wonder why he is sharing this set of rooms with us. He could afford a flat of his own. The only downside to Martin is that he is studying PPE and has to work as hard as a science student.
There are advantages to having Martin with us. He brought several items of equipment with him that make life easier for all of us. His is the television, the cable subscription, the second fridge freezer, the laser printer and the tumble drier. He is quite happy to let any of us use anything he has. He knows that he has more money than any of us. He is slightly diffident about using his purchasing power but willing to contribute proportionally more to any joint project. His ample supply of drink made the pre-Christmas end of term party more successful than it would have been if it had depended on the impoverished majority.
I should get back to writing up my notes. The others will be here soon and they will interrupt my train of thought, not that I’m concentrating on Science. I’m still thinking about Cathy and the dance.
Some hours later I made coffee for Martin and I. We were the only two in the kitchen. I had been studying too long and my eyes were tired. I shut my folder and rested my head on my hands while I waited for the coffee to cool.
“Thanks, Alan,” Martin said as I put the coffee beside him. He leaned back clutching the mug. He looked at me appraisingly.
“Well, Alan, when are you going to ask Cathy?”
“What?” I spluttered into my coffee.
“When are you going to ask Cathy to the Valentine Dance?”
“Why not? Asked someone else? I doubt that.”
“No, Martin. I can’t afford the tickets. Neither can Cathy. Not even if we went Dutch.”
“I thought so.”
I looked at him.
“No. I wouldn’t lend you the money and I know you wouldn’t ask. You couldn’t repay me, could you?”
I shook my head. It was true.
“I could give you the money but both of you wouldn’t accept, would you?”
“Life isn’t simple, is it? I have got tickets for the dance. I’m taking my cousin Hannah. Neither of us wants to go, not because we don’t like each other, we do, but that the dance isn’t our sort of thing. We would rather be out on the moors on our horses, or if we were going dancing, at a party in London with our friends. It is difficult sometimes because some oik always thinks that because we are rich we are toffee-nosed and slumming if we go to a student event. Have you ever realised the hostility I face?”
“No, Martin, I hadn’t.”
“Even you have traces of it. You have been worried that I want Cathy, haven’t you?”
I barely nodded.
“You two are stupid sometimes. It is obvious to kaçak iddaa all of us that you and Cathy have eyes for no one else, yet both of you are jealous of anyone even speaking to the other.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Yes, Alan. It is also bloody obvious that you want to ask Cathy and haven’t, that she wants you to ask and is worried that you haven’t and both of you are miserable. Why not tell her you can’t afford it? She probably knows.”
“No, Alan, it won’t be easy. It will hurt your pride, won’t it?”
“But please do it. You two miserable pair of lovers are making this place depressing. Tonight? Please? For the sake of your flatmates?”
“OK. If I get a chance.”
“You will. Everyone else except you two are my guests in the local pub — just so you two can sort yourselves out. When you have, come and join us.”
“Thank you, Martin.”
“Don’t thank me. It helps me too. I like both of you. If you are happier, the whole flat will be – until the next crisis. Who knows? Next time it might be me who needs the heart-to-heart chat if Hannah chooses someone else.”
“Why not? She knows many young men as rich and accomplished as me. Some have handsome uniforms to dazzle her with. My Territorial Army khaki doesn’t compare with a Guards scarlet tunic, and certainly not with her brother’s shiny Household Cavalry breastplate. I hope that she’ll stay. She might not.”
We left it at that. The kitchen filled up that evening and gradually emptied until just Cathy and I were alone.
“Cathy?” I asked.
“You know that I’d like to invite you to the Valentine Dance?”
“Do I? You haven’t said anything, Alan.”
“I know. I haven’t said anything because I can’t afford the tickets. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. I want to go with go but I can’t raise the money, and if I could, I couldn’t afford to repay the loan…
That was a long speech for me. It would have been longer if Cathy’s lips hadn’t stopped my mouth. She sat on my lap and we enjoyed kissing at length. I was breathing hard and my heart was pumping fast when she finally pulled away.
“We’ve been stupid, haven’t we, Alan?” Cathy whispered.
“I’ve been stupid,” I emphasised. “I knew that you know how broke I am. I didn’t want to admit what you already knew.”
“And I knew you couldn’t afford it. Neither can I. I just wanted to be asked, or rather told that you wanted me as your partner.”
“I do. I’d like to take you to the dance but…”
We kissed again. This time I broke the kiss after only a couple of minutes.
“Martin has invited us for a drink in the local. All the others are already there.”
“I wondered where they’d gone. Martin’s idea?”
“And you were worried about him and me, weren’t you?”
I nodded. That started another kiss.
Eventually we managed to walk across the road hand-in-hand to join the rest of our flatmates in the pub. Martin raised an eyebrow as he saw us holding hands. He gave me two twenty-pound notes.
“Get the next round in, please, Alan. I’ve got to ring my parents on my mobile. My father’s just sent me a text, one of the few he’s ever sent me.”
“OK, Martin, and thank you.”
“You two sorted out now?”
Cathy replied for us. “Yes, Martin, thank you.”
She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. His arm briefly hugged her.
“Don’t need to thank me. As long as you two aren’t going to behave like wet blankets again, that’s all the thanks I need.”
Martin went outside into the relative quiet of the car park. Cathy and I joined our flatmates. I had just bought the drinks when Martin returned. He looked annoyed.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“The parents want me home this weekend for a family conference. They won’t say what about. They are being mysterious and that usually means trouble for all of us. My father sending me a text is worrying. It takes him forever to do one so whatever it is must be important.”
“So am I. I had plans for this weekend. Never mind. It’ll be a break from here although it’s a bit soon. I’ll have to work hard to get my written stuff done before Friday night.”
“Can I help?” I offered.
“Not really. My studies aren’t in your field.”
“But we could ensure you are kept supplied with food and drink,” Cathy said.
“That could be a help. I’ll start tomorrow afternoon as soon as I get in.”
“Then we’ll be around to give encouragement and victuals,” I added.
We stayed in the pub for a couple of hours before rolling back to the flat for communal coffee.
Cathy and I kept our word. Martin was able to work uninterrupted. Anything he wanted or needed was supplied as fast as we could. He was up to date on his work by Friday morning and could leave for home on Friday evening with a clear conscience.
Our work had suffered slightly. We worked together all of Friday evening while most of the others were out pubbing and clubbing.
We had one last task to do for Martin. He hadn’t been able to contact Hannah before he left because she had been out of the country for a couple of days visiting relations in Paris. Martin hadn’t thought to ask for contact details because he knew she would be back on Friday. He’d left a voicemail asking her to talk to us. During Friday evening she rang and we arranged to meet her at the flat on Saturday morning.
The rest of our flatmates were away from Saturday morning until late Sunday night. Normally we would have had Martin with us. When Hannah came her presence seemed to fill the kitchen. She is a very definite personality, a match for Martin’s. We had seen Hannah before, but not to exchange more than a couple of words before Martin whisked her off in his car to some event. We settled down around the kitchen table with coffee.
“So, what is Martin up to?” Hannah asked bluntly.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “He doesn’t really know either. He received a text message from his father. That was very unusual. Martin rang home and was summoned for an urgent family conference. His father didn’t give any reason, just said that it was vital that Martin came home this weekend. Martin wants us to apologise to you for his unexpected absence and says he’ll be back as soon as he can.”
“His father can be dictatorial but if he said it was vital, he probably meant it. He knows how hard Martin has to work perabet güvenilir mi if he is going to get his predicted First. I suppose I’ll just have to wait. I wish…”
“What do you wish, Hannah?” Cathy asked.
“I wish… I’m not sure how to say this.” Hannah paused. “I wish our relationship was slightly more developed. Although we are distantly related I don’t know Martin’s family that well. If I were to ring him at home I’d probably cause him some embarrassment and perhaps questions about how serious our relationship is. We’re not ready for that.”
“Why not?” Cathy is sometimes less tactful than I am.
“You should know,” Hannah retorted with a raised eyebrow softening the impact. “You two have been pussy-footing around the problem of the Valentine’s Dance. If your relationship had been more definite there would have been no need for either of you to be bothered about a dance. It’s the same with Martin and me. We’re friends who might become something more but haven’t yet. I’m not aware of his secrets. He doesn’t know mine.”
“Do you love him?” Cathy persisted.
“You are probing deep, aren’t you?” Hannah didn’t seem to mind despite her words. “Possibly. Probably? I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed if he were in it. We have a lot in common but neither of us is as demonstrative as you two.”
She looked pointedly at our entwined hands.
“That’s a new development, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Thanks to Martin. He gave us space and time to sort out what was worrying us about the dance. Now it doesn’t matter whether we go or not because we want to be together.”
I squeezed Cathy’s hand. She squeezed back.
“I see,” Hannah said. “Martin and I haven’t got to that point yet. We might. We might not. I hope that we do.”
“Anything we can do to help?” I asked.
“Help you two to decide whether or not you want to go further,” I replied.
“I don’t think so. Isn’t that up to us two? Wait… There is something. You two have shared this flat with Martin for over a term. Is there anything I should know about him?”
I looked at Cathy. She looked at me. Cathy nodded.
“I don’t know anything that is to Martin’s detriment. He is neat, tidy, helpful…”
“…And he hasn’t flirted with any of the women in the flat, nor been out with anyone except you.” Cathy continued. “When he’s not with you, he’s usually studying except for a few drinks across the road with all of us.”
“I hadn’t realised that I was the only woman in his life,” Hannah said.
“As far as we know, you are,” Cathy concluded.
“Thank you. However, you two ought not to look so smug. You have at least one secret from each other. I’ll give you a hint. All seven of you in this flat, including Martin, have something in common. Martin hasn’t concealed it. The rest of you have. Think about it.”
“I don’t…” Cathy and I started to say.
“Can I come back tomorrow evening and wait for Martin?” Was Hannah deliberately changing the subject?
“Of course,” I replied.
“Then I will. Until then, I’ll leave you with the puzzle. What do all seven of you have in common that six of you haven’t mentioned?”
After some more innocuous chat, Hannah left us alone. Cathy and I looked at each other. What secret did we share? We left it as a niggle in the back of minds as we resumed kissing. If practice makes perfect, we would have a good attempt at perfection while our flatmates were away.
Unfortunately, our sense of duty stopped us from time to time. We still had some studying to do before Martin came back to meet Hannah. We felt that it would be more than a meeting, perhaps a confrontation from which we should absent ourselves. In the meantime studies and kisses alternated.
By Sunday evening we had nearly forgotten Hannah’s hinted shared secret. We had been too busy studying and practising in unaccustomed privacy and had progressed well with both.
Hannah arrived about six o’clock. The three of us prepared a meal to share with Martin when he arrived. Hannah didn’t mention the secret. Neither did we.
Martin arrived about seven thirty. He seemed slightly surprised at a pre-prepared meal ready for him. Cathy and I thought he deserved our thanks and we knew that Hannah wanted more certainty. As the meal progressed Martin seemed to relax slightly but was still obviously tense and waiting to make some announcement or request.
“Martin, I hinted to Alan and Cathy that they share a secret with their flatmates and none of them has told the others,” Hannah said. “Have you guessed? Cathy?”
Cathy shook her head. I shook mine.
“That’s useful,” Martin said. “What I have to say concerns that.”
Even Hannah seemed surprised.
“Go on, Hannah. Tell them what they’ve been hiding from each other.”
“OK, Martin. Cathy, Alan, you and your flatmates including Martin, are all members of the Territorial Army. That is why you are together. Some students might be upset with you if they knew. Student halls of residence are often crawling with anti-war feelings.”
“Oh.” What else could I say? I looked at Cathy. She nodded. She was in the TA too.
“OK,” Martin said. “Since you are in the TA you know about official secrets. What I am about to tell you is secret.”
“Should you?” Cathy asked.
“No. But I shouldn’t know either. I do. It will affect all of us soon.”
“My father called me home because he has been told that the government are going to call up a large tranche of the TA to go to Afghanistan very soon, including my unit and yours. That will have a significant impact on our courses.”
I looked at Cathy. Both of us were stunned. We were about four months away from finishing our degrees. If we were called up, how long would we have to wait before we could sit our exams? If it was a long time we might have to repeat a year. There was no way I could afford that. Martin watched us. He could see the impact on us.
“But you don’t know, officially…” He added.
“What will happen? When?” Cathy asked.
“There will be an announcement in the House of Commons next week. The deployment will start at the end of March.”
“Our exams are in May and June!” I protested.
“I know. That is why my father called me home. He wanted to know what I intended to do. In theory we could all get our deployment deferred if we pushed hard enough, tipobet giriş but then our units would be incomplete. I like to think that I’m indispensable. I’m sure you do too. What he suggested is that he puts pressure on the university to allow us to sit early, before we go to Afghanistan.”
“Early?” I thought of all the syllabus I had yet to cover and all the revision necessary.
“But that means before the end of March!” Cathy protested.
“Even earlier than that. Probably mid-March at the latest.” Martin suggested.
All of the seven flatmates were worried about the impending announcement we shouldn’t know about yet. Even the reports in the media after a government statement in the House of Commons didn’t give us enough information. A further statement would be made early in February.
The next thing to happen was that a proctor delivered letters to all seven of us on a Wednesday evening. We were summoned to a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor tomorrow lunchtime. The proctor couldn’t tell us anything else except that we seven and no one else would be attending. That meant that the meeting must be about our Territorial Army roles.
It was. The Vice-Chancellor was flanked by four other members of the University’s Senate. We were served tea and biscuits sat around a conference table. The Vice-Chancellor sat at one end. After he had welcomed us he stated bluntly that the discussions in this room had to remain secret, with some of it covered by the Official Secrets Act. He asked Professor Amos, another Senate member, to take over.
“As you know,” Professor Amos said, “all seven of you are in the Territorial Army and are likely to be called up to serve in Afghanistan. The five of us…” He looked around at the Vice-Chancellor and Senate members, “…are all ex-military so we understand the dilemma you face. Your final examinations are several months away but you should join your units before then. Either you resign from the Territorial Army when the nation needs you, or you could fail to complete your degrees.”
We nodded. That was the situation as we saw it.
“The Vice-Chancellor and the full Senate have discussed your problem and we think we have a solution to offer. It has to remain in confidence between us and you. It could be unreasonable to ask you to sit your examinations early. You might not do justice to yourselves. So we have decided to award you your degrees based on the recommendations of the appropriate professors…”
He paused. We looked at each other. Some of our professors were hard taskmasters. Would their recommendations be good enough?
“Those professors made our decision easy. I am pleased to say that they have all recommended that all seven of you should be awarded a First in your discipline.”
That was unexpected.
“We understand through our unofficial contacts in the Ministry of Defence that you will receive orders to join your units next week and should be with your units on the following Monday. If you accept the Senate’s offer of Firsts to be awarded at the time other final students get their results, you can leave the University any time from today.”
“That’s before the Valentine dance,” Martin blurted.
“It is,” The Vice-Chancellor replied. “It might be awkward for you if you went. Some of the student body are not happy with soldiers among them. I doubt they would go further than expressing their disapproval…”
“But it would be politic for us to be gone before our call-up is announced,” I said.
The Vice-Chancellor nodded.
“Those of you who have bought tickets can get refunds,” Professor Amos added. “I will be joining you in Afghanistan so I’ll need a refund too. There are more people who want to be at that dance than there are tickets so it shouldn’t be a problem. But you haven’t said whether you’ll accept the Senate’s offer of Firsts.”
We looked at each other.
“We accept,” Martin said. The rest of us nodded.
We could sense the tension relax.
“Thank you,” The Vice-Chancellor said. “But our agreement must remain in confidence until the results are announced normally at the usual time. OK?”
“What about our girlfriends?” Martin asked.
“You can tell Hannah,” Professor Amos said. “She’s going too. But the Official Secrets Act applies. Our offer has been cleared with the Ministry of Defence. The rest of you? Please be discreet.”
Back in the student accommodation we gathered in the kitchen. We were in a slight state of shock. We would all have Firsts but we had to leave soon. We agreed to leave on Saturday, making frantic phone calls to parents to collect us.
“Why not?” I said suddenly. Martin and Cathy looked at me.
“Why not what?” Cathy asked.
“Why don’t we have a Valentine party here on Friday night — just the seven of us and significant others?”
That led to a heated discussion. It would be a farewell event too. It would have to be low-key because we needed to be packed and ready to leave the next morning. Eventually we all agreed. Martin contacted Hannah and other boy/girlfriends were invited.
The Friday night came. We weren’t sure at first whether we were celebrating or having a wake. Cathy was wearing her ball gown. I was wearing my evening suit. I looked at Cathy leaning against me in a slow dance. I knew I loved her. We had been together as friends for nearly three years. My indecision about the expensive Valentine dance had been the only problem between us.
When the dance ended I pushed Cathy away slightly. I held her hand as I knelt before her. Martin realised what I intended and stopped the next piece of music.
“Cathy? Will you marry me? Please?” I said into the silence.
Cathy looked down at me. She was startled. She smiled faintly.
“You’re sure, Alan?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said too loudly. “Will you marry me?”
Cathy pulled my head against her body.
“Yes.” That was very quiet but clear.
“Yes.” Cathy repeated louder.
Our friends clapped. Cathy hugged me tightly to her bodice.
“Hannah?” Martin said as the clapping stopped.
“You can’t! Martin! You can’t!” Hannah protested.
“I can,” Martin retorted.
He dropped to his knees in front of Hannah.
“Hannah? Will you marry me please?”
Hannah waited at least thirty seconds before her reply.
“Yes, Martin. Yes.”
Our early Valentine and farewell party turned into a double engagement party.
Tomorrow we leave the university. Soon we will all be in Afghanistan for what is supposed to be a six-month tour of duty. Marriages will have to wait. Service in our country’s forces comes first…