Over the next couple of days, most people left campus for home for Christmas. Those who didn’t have the money to return home moved around the place like it was a ghost town. Of course, when eighty percent of those in the university leave, it might as well be a ghost town. Some days, I’d walk outside in the cold and ever-increasing winds and felt like I should see tumbleweeds bouncing through the courtyard.
One day, a few days after Hanukkah, I went over to The Student’s to plan our trip to Lille. I’d never been in his flat before—in fact, the only person whose flat I’d been in was The Drunkard’s. (The Traveler didn’t allow me in, for fear that The Drunkard would come with me and wreck something; The Writer didn’t allow me in for fear that I’d instigate a fight with Stasia; and The Stalker... well, as I said before, I’m not sure his own flatmates knew he lived there.) I had, of course, heard of his problems with his flatmates, and so I prepared myself for the worst.
I stood in front of the doors to his building, waving my mobile in the air, trying desperately to get a signal. Finally, I caught one and sent The Student a text. He appeared at his kitchen’s window—a couple floors up—wearing a gas mask. I thought this was strange, but didn’t have time to think more about it, as from the window there dropped his key fob and a miniature gas mask—which looked something like Star Trek. I opened the door with the fob and put the breathing apparatus on as I climbed the stairs. I arrived at his flat, opened the door, and vomited.
The smell was horrendous. It was as if someone had left a side of beef out to rot in high summer and sprayed it with paint. The stench pervaded the flat. I wiped the tears from my eyes, secured the device in my mouth, and made a note not to breathe through my nose. I looked up and saw that UPP, the company that owned the College, had put up notices of biohazards, pleas to clean, and, finally, pictures of housecleaners that had gone missing. The Student walked in from the kitchen, waved at me, and I followed him down the hall to his room.
He’d made a few adjustments that must have set him back a couple of hundred pounds. For one, he attached a new door to his original. In doing so, he created an air lock. We entered the air lock and then his room.
I walked in, tore the breather out of my mouth, and gasped for air.
His room was a paradise compared to what was going on in the hallway. It was neat and orderly. Whereas mine was taken over by dust in some places, had Amazon boxes strewn around, and an absurd amount of knick-knacks, The Student’s consisted of things arranged by size, put away in drawers and clearly-marked containers. A few posters of famous paintings hung on his walls and, on his wardrobe, there was a Keep Calm and Carry On poster. No telling how many times that had kept him from dropping out of his degree.
“Dear God,” I said, “what was that?”
“The stench,” he said, “was a combination of bacon that has been left out to... I don’t know, soften, a bizarre black mushroom soup, and a dead fish that has been sitting on our kitchen table for a week and a half.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Different culture.”
“Different culture? Man, you have to worry about hygiene. You might die if you touch a surface in your own kitchen.”
“Yes, well, that’s the status of my home life at the moment. Also why I ordered these things,” he tapped his breather. “I’m still waiting for the bit that goes in your nose, though.”
“You’re obviously not intending on fixing the problem.”
“Narrator, there are four of them and I’m still not sure if three of them can speak functional English. No, I just eat freeze-dried food and microwave it to bring it in here. Life goes on.” He clapped his hands. “Right, shall we figure out what we need to do to get to Lille?”
I said yes.
He sat in his chair, gestured at the bed, and I sat down. He turned on his computer, turned on iTunes, and started playing Beethoven. “Okay,” said The Student when Firefox opened up. “Our Eurostar leaves Ashford at six in the morning.”
I made a sound that I shouldn’t have been able to make. Something in between a Tusken Raider and a rusty gate. “What?”
“Pascale, my friend, has class at ten that day, so we have to get to the city early so she can get to class on time.”
“We have to be at Ashford at six in the morning? What time do we have to leave here?”
“Well,” he said, switching from the second movement of the Fifth Symphony to the last movement of Vivaldi’s Summer suite, “that’s what I was going to talk to you about. We can either get a cab from here to Ashford—something ungodly like forty pounds—or we can get a high speed from Canterbury West.”
“West.” It was a no-brainer.
The Student nodded. “Good. In that case, we’ll get the six o’clock to Ashford, get there in twenty minutes, and have plenty of time to spare.” He stood up to one of the shelves above his head, pulled out a manilla folder, took out a piece of paper, and handed it to me. “That’s everything you need to bring with you.”
The word “passport” was written down in the center of the page in a sans-serif font. I cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t think I’d know that?”
He shrugged. “With you, I never know what to think. So, get here at five o’clock on Tuesday and we’ll head down there. Oh, bring a sleeping bag.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Cool. Man, this is going to be great. Pascale’s super nice.” He snapped his fingers. “I need to get The Traveler’s jambalaya recipe.”
I turned pale. “Nah,” I said. “Nah you don’t. That’s unnecessary.”
The Student snorted. “You kidding me? Gotta say thanks somehow, why not cooking?”
“Because cooking jambalaya isn’t a way to say thanks, it’s a way to punish.”
The Student snorted. “Come on, it wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Oh? I seem to remember you weeping more than me.”
The Student ignored me and sat back in his chair. “Of course, I’ll have to do away with the Diablo peppers. That was overkill.” He looked at me. “There’s a difference between spicing up a recipe and making it unpalatable. Do you agree?”
I stood to leave and put the breathing apparatus over my mouth. “Yeah, sure,” I said. Sadly, the breather did not render my voice similar to Darth Vader’s. “Hey, do you know if we’re doing another story round before we go to Lille?”
The Student nodded. “I think The Writer is itching to hear more—why, I can’t imagine, since he hates everything we churn out at the pub.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps it’s because everything we do is so full of childish glee that he just can’t bear to be away.”
“I doubt that.” He stood up and we walked out of his room, through the airlock, through the stink, and then into the main corridor.
I took off my mask, handed it to him, and said au revoir.