In September 1968, days before my eighteenth birthday, I moved out of my parental home in Yorkshire and into digs in Birmingham. Thus began my three-year stint at university.
I was one of three first-year students each allocated a bedroom in a terraced house on Station Road in Kings Heath. Here, we were the house-guests of a married couple who were pensioners. Both were white and had lived in Birmingham all their lives. She was sharp and tight-fisted. Older than her, he’d served in the trenches during The Great War and was now lingering on the fringes of Altzheimers. Though amiable and still coherent, he’d simply repeat a limited repertoire of anecdotes, opinions and his one joke.
The joke was about a couple emerging from a night in a Second World War air-raid shelter. The guy goes ‘What’s that strange smell?’ His partner replies ‘Fresh air’.
Not a great joke in the first place, it lost much of its slender charm long before its hundredth re-telling. However, I preferred listening this than being subjected to his most frequently expressed opinion. This was that all black and Asian Brummies should be ‘boiled in oil… except the Lawrences’ to which his wife would always nod in agreement. The Lawrences were the ever-smiling and deeply Christian black couple who lived next door. They were to be spared from being boiled because they were polite, helpful and deferential to their elderly racist neighbours, often doing shopping for them, running errands and sorting out whatever else they might require.
We three ‘freshers’ only stayed in that house for one term, leaving during the Christmas holiday. What persuaded us to go wasn’t his boring bigotry. It was his wife’s penny-pinching. As the weather grew colder, she refused to turn on the radiators in our rooms. Instead, she simply put a hot-water bottle in each of our beds. Though we were there for fifteen weeks, these beds were never changed. She told me that she changed her guests’ bedding once a year.
We were staying there on a b’n’b basis, with firm instructions to bring our hot-water bottles with us when we came down for breakfast. Glancing into the kitchen one morning, I spotted her carefully pouring the contents of each water-bottle into the kettle before boiling it for our tea and coffee. I now understood why my morning coffee had always tasted strangely rubbery. When I asked her why she did this, she explained that the water was still warm and therefore cost less to heat.
It was also off-putting to notice, some days later, that there was mould on the bread that she was toasting for us. This, it transpired was because she saved more money by buying old bread which was being sold cheaply as bird-food. However, what really triggered our joint decision to move out was the fact that our lightly-cooked (again to save money) bacon and sausages regularly tasted like they were going off. The discovery of green mould growing on some of the sausages confirmed our worst fears. It transpired that she was getting all our breakfast ingredients cheaply because they too were well past their best. These she bought in bulk, keeping them for weeks in the pantry because this was cheaper than using a fridge.
Some university students, while academically high-flying, have little suss or common sense. One of the other two staying in these digs was Bill. He came from a very wealthy family with staff to attend to all their needs. On our first night there, he knocked on my door to ask for help because there was no bulb in the ceiling light in his room. I went through to his room. There was a fully-functioning bedside lamp. I told him not to worry. He could either ask our landlady for a bulb in the morning or go out and buy one himself. For tonight, he’d be fine with that bedside lamp. ‘But how will I know if the main light is switched on or off?’ he asked. I looked at him before saying ‘There’s no bulb. So what difference does it make?’ Bill frowned ‘But what if it’s still switched on and the electricity leaks into the room while I’m asleep and electrocutes me?’ He was seriously worried about that mortal threat.
The following term I moved into a house a few streets away which I shared with several other students. Here we did our own catering in the shared kitchen. The morning after we’d moved in, one of my house-sharers knocked on the door of my room. He’d been in the kitchen cooking his breakfast when he’d burned his egg. ‘Burnt your egg?’ I asked, incredulous. ‘How’ve you done that?’ ‘I was frying it but something’s gone wrong.’ I opened my door. The air in the hallway was thick with smoke and there was a stink of burning. On the hob in the kitchen was the egg, charred black and so firmly burnt onto the pan that we’d have to bin it and buy a new one.
‘So how much fat did you use?’ I asked him. He looked surprised. ‘Fat? No one told me anything about using fat to fry an egg. I just broke it into the pan and lit the gas.’