An orange kettle and four blue mugs.
It was time to go. I’d tried to eat the cooked breakfast that Dad had prepared but couldn’t. There were far too many big butterflies in boots, tramping round my tummy. Dad hugged me goodbye and put a five-pound note in my hand. Riches! He wasn’t coming with us. George, his cousin, was driving. As Mum and I settled down for the long journey from West Lothian, I thought about why I’d chosen Aberdeen University. Yes! It was that summer when I’d first seen the city, driving through with my parents four years before. A day when the mica in Marischal College’s granite sparkled like crazy diamonds, and I saw its elaborately carved spires, topped with brightly coloured metal flags. It looked like a castle from a fabulous fantasy, a fairy tale. I was enchanted.
Back then, in the early 70s, there were no university visits, no campus tours. Would-be students ticked the boxes of the courses they wanted to follow, posted their application forms, crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. When news of my place at Aberdeen arrived, I was delighted. And that summer, when Mum said that she’d take me on a visit to see the city, I was so grateful. At least I’d be able to get my bearings. A rail journey, over the Forth Bridge, seeing the sun shining on the sea as we went north. We walked through the quiet streets of Old Aberdeen, over the cobbles, across the campus. We stood in the entrance to the imposing Science Library. We saw the Hall of Residence that was to be my home for the next academic year – Johnson Hall. Set at right angles, two grey four storey blocks of student accommodation, and a double storey refectory building, all set round a lawn. It was completely deserted. But it looked friendly enough? Didn’t it?
I’d done my preparations for this new start:
- A fat dictionary, because I was determined to learn new words. I was to be a student, after all!
- The collected works of Shakespeare, heaven knows why, because I was joining a course in Zoology, Chemistry and Botany.
- An exquisite monochrome print by Hannah Frank, a Glasgow artist, entitled ‘Wrap thy form in a mantle grey – star inwrought’, ready for my study bedroom wall.
- Blutac to hang the print (no drawing pins allowed).
- An electric kettle, cheerfully orange, that whistled when it boiled.
- And even four blue mugs, in the hope that I might make three friends to invite in for coffee.
- I was ready. What more could I possibly need?
In 1971, there was virtually no motorway or even dual carriageway north of the Forth Road Bridge. On our early autumn journey, we meandered through Fife and then into Angus and beyond. The roads became narrower, the weather bleaker, with a mist – a haar, as I now know – drifting across the road, at times marring George’s visibility. He decided that we’d stop for a break at the Cammach Inn, a few miles south of Aberdeen. The whins and broom on the verges, the drystane dykes, the chill wind, the haar. Was it any wonder that I suddenly thought that this was a bad idea? Should I say something? Was it too late to turn back? Years later, a colleague told me the tale of her night-time journey from England to Aberdeen, with her husband who had found work in the oil industry. As they went further and further north, the lights of each settlement became more and more sparce. She began to pray – please God, don’t let Aberdeen be smaller than Brechin!
And then we drove over the brow of a hill and down into the city. It was certainly bigger than Brechin. Aberdeen was large, spread out comfortably between the Dee and the Don, with broad streets and a wide, welcoming bridge that spanned the river to the south. The slate North Sea in the distance. Neat bungalows, tall tenements, grey granite, looking dour and dreich. We went past the harbour and stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant – La Lombarda, at the east end of the world-famous Union Street. While Mum and George ate a hearty meal, I was overcome with anxiety and embarrassment. Were other new students there in La Lombarda? What might they think of me? Was I wearing the right clothes? Was I sophisticated enough to be a student? What did being "a student" even mean?
A short drive took us to Old Aberdeen, rattling over those cobbles and then a left turn through the entrance gates of Johnson Hall. It wasn’t deserted now. It was a hive of activity, with other students being dropped off by their families and friends. We were given a brief tour, and I was allocated a room, on the first floor, overlooking the quad. I offered Mum and George a coffee, but they declined, citing the length of the journey back south. They left. Years later my mother told me that she had wept, leaving me. I hadn’t known.
Now though, I was alone. I unpacked my case, put my Shakespeare and dictionary on the shelf above my desk, unfurled 'Wrap thy form’ and, using the Blutac, found just the right spot for my print. I put my kettle and the blue mugs on a tray and sat on my bed. What now? Thank heavens I’d been given a room overlooking the quad, and the refectory building. Had I not, I might have sat there for days. When I saw other students heading for the refectory, I decided that I couldn't simply stay in my room. I took three deep breaths and headed to dinner. I was suddenly hungry!
And in the food queues for breakfast and dinner, in the junior common room, and yes, in my room, over coffee, I met and made friends, friends who are still my dear ones, and dear friends who are away too soon. Fifty two years ago... but it seems like yesterday.