Standing outside the train station on London Road, I looked across at the skyline of Leicester. ‘Whatever happens, I’m not coming to this shit-hole’, I thought.
Despite having a miserable time, culminating in an unsuccessful attempt to join the Post Office, I completed nearly 3 years of Sixth Form.
Careerwise, I was clueless. Better to go into to higher education. Decide on a career later. In terms of subject, I applied to courses that were general enough to keep my options open. That was the theory at least.
I went for interviews at Sheffield, Leicester and a higher education college near Leeds.
The college had a good reputation. The interview went well. My reservation? It was a Catholic College. But aside from wailing, self-flagellating monks in the corridors, there were no overt signs that this was a faith-based institution. Progressively, the glossy brochure gushed that they now accept anyone that is ‘sympathetic to the Christian ideals’. A softening of Catholic doctrine or a pragmatic response to fiscal realities? It didn’t sound like a good fit for me.
In Sheffield I got to experience typical student accommodation. My brother’s house. It was freezing cold and snail trails crisscrossed the kitchen floor. I arrived at the interview with a filthy hangover. The night before I’d sampled another part of student life – cheap booze.
A teacher read my A Level results over the phone. They were bad, as expected. Very bad. My grades wouldn’t allow me to take up any of my offers. Instead I’d go into clearing. The bargain basement of higher education. Like a Mark and Spencer underwear sale, you set aside your dignity, roll up your sleeves and rummage around looking for something that near-enough fits. These are the undersubscribed courses higher education institutions need to fill.
I accepted a place on a Higher National Diploma in Public Administration. A 2-year course that was a gateway to starting a degree. It was at Leicester…
The course subjects looked OK but, if I’m honest, I mostly just wanted the adventure of student life.
I was still self-conscious about my arm. I carried it with my hand in my pocket. That was most comfortable. The problem was that people tended not to notice. Good in some ways but the other side of that coin is their embarrassment when they realise. Usually when they tried to shake my hand or asked me to help carry a large round of drinks. The strategy for my arrival in Leicester was to wear a sling for the first week or two. ‘What happened to the arm?’ would be the first question. Issue dealt with.
This had a downside too. Wearing a sling is usually for a temporary injury. A broken wrist or collar bone. Breaking the news that my injury is permanent left them stunned. Not knowing what to say. Tumbleweed rolled passed.
More positively, I was able to incorporate the sling into my outfit for the sponsored-3-legged-fancy-dress-pub-crawl. I was a bloodied patient helped along by my friend Alice, dressed as a nurse. We made the pages of the local newspaper, The Leicester Mercury.
Life in Leicester was largely spent in the student bubble. Student campus, student bars, nightclubs on student night. The first year I lived in halls of residence. The second I moved into shared house with my friend Graham. On our first weekend back after the summer break, we went to catch up with other friends at the student union bar. We walked home down quiet, deserted terraced streets. On the other side of the road, a passing car slowed to walking pace. Cruising along slowly. Four big men stared at us. ‘That’s a worry’ I said to Graham. Understated. ‘Just keep walking’ he said. The car sped off, but the relief was short-lived. They pulled over further down the street. All four men got out and started walking towards us. They’re idea of a fun Saturday night was finding students to bash. And we were tonight’s victims.
The front doors of the terraced houses opened onto the pavement. There was nowhere to hide. Graham knocked on the door of the nearest house, pretending we knew the occupants. ‘You don’t know anyone there!’ These gorillas were smarter than they looked.
One of the men lurched forward. Knocking Graham to the ground with a punch to the face. Blood poured down his top lip and chin. Horrified, I grabbed the back of his collar, pulling him to his feet. ‘Fucking run Graham!’ I screamed. We did. As fast as we could.
Three of the men gave up the chase quickly. The younger, fourth man was more determined. He pursued us for a few hundred meters. He was fast but couldn’t catch us. We were fueled by adrenalin and fear.
A casual observer would have been impressed with my rehabilitation. Only a few years earlier I’d had two broken legs. The speed at which I ran, terrified, from my assailants was a tribute to the physiotherapists.
Once a safe distance we hid in bushes to catch our breath. Graham mopped the blood from his face with his handkerchief. We waited for about 30 minutes, to be sure they’d gone. If they found us on those terraced streets again, with nowhere to hide, we were in big trouble.
The following week, Graham and I signed up for martial arts classes. Fortunately we never needed to use the deadly skills we learned.
I never fell in love with Leicester but I had a great time, with many boozy nights. More importantly, I made enduring friendships that are still with me today. Together we’ve experienced travel, buying houses, weddings, divorces, births and too many bereavements. Good and bad, these are precious times that can be traced back to the arbitrary choice I made in the academic bargain basement.
This post is part of a series. Want to catch up? Go to Part 1: A Sudden Blinding Flash