Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Cost of a Few Quid on Expenses.

Shortly after the last dinosaur began adding its contribution to the fossil record – I was around twenty two at the time – my employer sent me on a training course to Winchester. I left on Monday morning shortly after breakfast. The drive was an awkward one from where I lived in the East Midlands, and I didn’t arrive in King Alfred’s capital until quite late in the afternoon. Too late for lunch, but that was OK because expenses were a fixed sum so what you didn’t spend you kept. Who needs lunch when you can make a few quid on your expenses? I’d been given the address of a cheap boarding house a couple of miles from the city centre, so that’s where I headed and checked in. The room was sparse with just a single bar electric fire for heating, and it didn’t work anyway. Oh well, who needs luxury when you can make a few quid on your expenses?

I hung around for a few hours and then decided to make for the lights of the city (in Winchester?) I threw my raincoat over the flimsy sweatshirt I was wearing and went out. I got a bit of a shock. It was November and we’d had a good summer and warm autumn that year. It had felt like September when I left home – hence the lightweight attire – but now it felt like January. Winter had descended in a matter of hours. A hard frost was already setting in and my breath would have done justice to a steam train. The lightweight attire was clearly inadequate, and I was feeling pretty chilled by the time I’d walked around the corner to where the car was parked. No matter; the drive was just far enough to get the heater working and I felt suitably warmed when I parked up somewhere not far from the cathedral.

I wandered off in search of a hostelry. I suppose I should have been looking for a restaurant, but who needs dinner when you can make a few quid on your expenses? Eventually I found a pub that took my fancy and ordered a pint of bitter and a packet of crisps. I was shivering badly by that stage and felt the need to chew something. ‘Damn the expense,’ I thought. The packet of crisps joined the breakfast bowl of cornflakes as the only food I’d eaten that day. I got warm in the pub, and with the warmth came the onset of boredom. I decided to go to the cinema.

It took some time to find it, and I got very cold again in the course of searching. Find it I did, however, and went in. It was pleasantly warm in there, but the film was awful. It was unremittingly miserable and touched the rawest nerve in my psychological make up. When I began to feel nauseous I decided it was time to leave. I staggered out into the street feeling sure I was going to throw up any second.

It was cold out in the street, and a little busy. I needed somewhere private. A short way down the road was a junction giving access to a quiet Edwardian terrace – the sort of street much beloved of exorcists once the mist has fallen. It was a little misty that night, and deserted. Perfect. But not for long. I saw a woman walking towards me and instinct cut in. If you’re going to have standards you have a responsibility to live up to them. That’s one of my rules for living, and one of my standards forbids the act of vomiting in front of women, especially strangers who might be ladies, and even more especially if I encounter them in quiet Edwardian terraces. Besides, she might have thought I was drunk and felt uncomfortable. I crossed the street (in a zig-zag fashion, just so she could see what she was missing…) The next thing I knew I was waking up in the gutter, looking up at a street light with a lurid misty halo around it.

I hadn’t vomited, but I honestly wondered whether I was dead. I felt awful, and there was no human presence to convince me otherwise. Every window in every house was dark. I decided I wasn’t dead, although I still wondered whether the entrance of the heavenly choir was imminent. I was shaking like an aspen leaf in a stiff breeze. I got up and made for the car (it amazes me looking back that I knew where it was. I must have had a sound geographical sense in those days.)

The boarding house was cold when I got back. The bedroom was colder, and I already knew that the electric fire didn’t work. I stayed dressed, crawled under the frigid sheets, and went to sleep. I felt fine in the morning. And the training course was as boring as training courses always are, but at least I made a few quid on expenses.

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