A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN. (23) Misery Mansion

It was a long days’ traveling down hill all the way from the North and into foreign land. We finally arrived at Corsham in the early evening. The bus pulled up and squeaked to a halt outside the Pack Horse Inn. Along with the other students bound for the college, I grabbed my bags and climbed down onto the cobble stones. As the last bus of the day pulled off we new ones stood there in the early twilight, the air smelled different, the way it does when you land in a foreign land, and the buildings, even the old pub were different, they were clean not covered in soot.
As we freshmen stood there all eyes and anticipation we must have appeared like overgrown school kids out of uniform. The older seasoned students, strode off laughing and exchanging the summers’ news, leaving us lot there like a little flock of confused lambs.
The older students seemed to all know each other and had the appearance of seasoned hippies returning from some exotic land. They were all kaftans, floppy hats, braided hair and beaded bags and they all sported deep leather brown tans on thin traveled faces. I imagined they’d all spent the summer on a beach in a commune living off fish and coconuts. They were a different tribe, I wondered if they’d let us join.
Our little group of strangers, clasping bags and pieces of paper with our addresses on, broke up into the thickening twilight. and headed off after asking for directions from the last few older students leaving the bus,
The village was thinly lit by occasional street lamps; with just enough light to read the address of my digs to a passing local. He gave me directions in an alien accent, sounding like he’d a mouth full of cider apples. I left the others and headed up Church Street looking for the lane where I thought the man had said I’d find my digs.
I found the lane; it was a dead-end with just a few houses ranged on one side facing allotments on the other side, a sweet heavy aroma of manure and freshly dug earth wafted over a hedge.
The house with the address in the letter I’d received from the college stood alone at the end of the lane, it appeared blank plain and austere, nothing like the homely cottages which lined the road up from the village. Double fronted and built of honey coloured stone I stood at the gate and looked up at my first digs which outside at least looked charmless and bleak. As it turned out its’ external appearance well suited the character of its’ primary occupant, my first land-lady. Mrs. Maidley, was her name. I knocked, she came to the door. She was late middle-aged with tight permed grey-blue hair covered with a hair net . The rest of her was roundish, smallish and wearing a paisley pinny and a heavy stitched pink home-knitted cardigan. There was a moments pause as she weighted me up. I smiled, she didn’t. Under her arm, like a growth she carried a little dog with a ribbon in its’ forelocks. The ‘thing’ spoke first, yapping a welcome, more like a warning as it looked as though it had been waiting to rip my throat out. I stared, stock still, mouth open, “Hello” emerged as “Hell” from my mouth as I stood on the step shocked and transfixed by a snapping mouth full of small pointy teeth.
‘Chewey’, (its’ name I was about to discover), sized me up as new meat. He was a snarling little monster, a cross between a piranha and a dust-bunny, like some alien horrid thing you might find at the bottom of a full Hoover bag, a nasty piece of work if ever there was one. I could tell he wanted to rip a hole in me straight away just to see what a Northerner tasted like. It’s a wonder she didn’t give him a taste then and there, I thought she might.
I looked at the little buggers’ beady little eyes.
“Just you wait lodger” they said, “I’ll soon be having my piece of you.”

Mrs Manson I discovered once she’d silenced her dog by sticking a doggie drop in its mouth, had a job working as a kitchen lady in the canteen of the college. She took in students every year and was on a recommended list provided by the college. She told me this as though I didn’t know, standing there with my letter from the college.
She’d had hundreds of students over the years she said and judging by her welcome and Cheweys’ smile, had dislike them as a body and resented she had to take them in at all. She smiled thinly as she ushered me in over the threshold, Chewey snapped a welcome, but luckily missed. In the hall she said to leave my bags so she could introduce me to her husband.
We went in to an old fashioned room that looked like it hadn’t changed in decades, A small fire was trying to put itself out in the grate. The smoke that misted the room was from the old boys’ pipe. He looked up as she showed me into the parlor. He didn’t stand up, she explained he’s a semi-cripple with a club-foot. His bad foot was encased in an ugly black leather boot the size of a tool bag.
He was friendly enough and asked me questions about where I’d come from and what my interests were. I told him about Sue and Wakefield and how glad I was to be here. I tried to make a good impression.
Then she showed and told me what was in and what was off bounds in the downstairs part of the house. And asked me about breakfast, which was usually a piece of toast and marmite if I’d like it. She had a practiced way of asking questions negatively and answering them herself,
“Would you like a piece of toast for breakfast in the mornings, No?”
It was the ‘no’ that got me, it was difficult to say yes to. But I said yes I was already famished my sandwiches having run out at Peterborough. But it seemed that I was to go to bed hungry as she offered nothing.
The rent was only five pounds a week, not much even by 1969 money, but the whole feel of the house and not just my welcome was pinched and miserly. Not that my life was going to be one of luxury. My Grant amounted to only twelve pounds a week total, but it was enough. As it turned out there wasn’t much to spend it on in Corsham.
After saying goodnight to her husband who I’d rarely see from then on, she showed me up to my room, top right off the landing at the head of the stairs. The air got colder with every step. Inside the room contained a bed with a patterned beige coverlet, a single wardrobe with a mirror on the front and a small table and chair with an old fashioned lamp with a shade with a hunting scene on it.
The Hunt I noticed hadn’t left, instead the huntsmen were standing about on their horses enjoying a drink before trotting off.
“Now landlord fetch another brandy for me and the Squire will you there’s a good feller.” Said the fat man with the horn on the horse.
The light shone through the windows of the half-timbered inn in the picture. I remember this in detail because it was the cheeriest thing in the room. Then she turned on the main overhead light, which must have been about forty watts as it seemed to make the room darker, and turned off the hunting scene lamp as though I shouldn’t be corrupted by warm colors and glowing windows.
“Now” she said, smoothing the coverlet. “We have a few rules we need you to keep to.”
“We don’t want you to burn lights too late.” I stood by the bed and I could feel coldness come up from the sheets, “and we’d appreciate it if you used the electric heater,” (one bar only), “only when it’s really cold. It’s electric, it’s costly”. She continued, as her viscious mutt eyed me up from under a mopped of combed hair, I knew then why such dogs were called Shitsus. “The w.c. is at the end of the corridor. Please try not to over use the T.P., when possible us the loo at the college and if you do please leave the window open one inch after you’ve used it. You can have one bath a week, but fill it up only a third of the way and you should buy your own soap as we’re not a hotel. But there’s a towel for you.” She opened a drawer with her free hand “I will change it every week on Saturday”. The towel was almost see-through, and looked as if it had been passed down from the hundreds of student who had passed beneath her roof. “There,” she said. “That’s all there is to it. Oh and here’s a key,” she took the key from the front pocket of her pinny, “but we’d prefer it if you were in by ten unless you warn us. We go to bed early and rise early too. Alright dear? I’ll leave you to it then hope you will be happy with us don’t we Chewey.”
She went out and closed the door, but opened it straight away. “Oh and watch out for Chewey, he’s a bit territorial and nervy and doesn’t take easy to strangers. I leave him in the lounge in the mornings when we’ve gone off, he looks after the place when Mr. Manson and I are out. We go out early before eight so I expect you’ll soon get to know him at breakfast time.”
“Oh you mean he’s in the room where you put the toast and the marmite?”
“Yes.” She said adding. “I wouldn’t go in there with bare feet unless you are very nimble.”
The dogged yapped the last word and I swear it gave me an evil little smile from her elbow as she closed the door for the last time that night. I felt like my cell door was closing.
Thank-God I’d brought my hot water bottle from home, I could sit round it on an evening before getting into bed. I wished I’d brought my Teddy too oh and my Playboy magazines which I just then remembered I’d left under the carpet in my bedroom at home!

Oh it was bleak, my first night away from home, even bleaker than the night I sat up all night in the outer section of the two compartment tent in April on the East Coast whilst Chris and Phil and two girls they’d picked up did some serious shagging inside.
I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my first evening in that bleak room with not so much a radio for company, even though it was now after nine. So I decided to go out for half an hour and wander back to the village main street and call home from a telephone box I’d seen outside the post office. I didn’t dare ask if I could use the phone in the house.
Bleak as the Manson house was, once I got outside I could see or rather sense that the village itself was really beautiful.
The sky was as open and clear as ever I’d seen it with stars from edge to edge. The low built deep roofed houses were just fat dark shapes facing each other across the narrow street. It was so silent as there were no cars about.
Each individually shaped and squat cottage seemed to be snoozing into the night. I could see they were built in the same honey coloured stone, where patches of light fell on their walls, beyond hedges and fences.
The air was sweet and crisp-cold with a perfume of autumn leaves and gardens. And there wasn’t the remotest sniff of a fish shop within fifty miles. They didn’t have fish and shops in the South back then (not real ones anyway).
In the low luminescence I could see from a thin crescent moon, curls of wood-smoke in blue grey feathers slowly rising above cock-eyed chimneys,. The thick silence disturbed only by a far off dog barking somewhere.
It was a dimly lit picture from a fairy-story book, and I was walking down the page, towards the inn with the warm mullioned windows.
I already felt a million miles away from Calder Grove and Crigglestone and the black poisonous river, like an astronaut taking first steps on another world.
It was the furthest I ‘d ever been from home alone and here I suddenly was amongst the hippies of Wiltshire.
I’d come from a place where Rugby League was the unofficial religion and drinking a way of life and where anybody the least bit ‘arty farty’ was branded a raving poof as they were beaten to death with a coal shovel and thrown down a disused pit-shaft.
It felt different here.
I got to the end of the street and opened the telephone box door. Inside there wasn’t the smell of stale beery pee like the phone-boxes did in Wakefield. I rang home and shoved in my coins.
I had to quickly fill mum in that I was; alive, doing well and my digs were great and the landlady a charming sweet woman, who’d offered me a bacon sandwich whilst I relaxed in my own designated easy chair by the fire, stroking the smooth head of a friendly Labrador. And that no I wasn’t doing drugs yet and I hadn’t been shot, or caught some infectious sexual disease! I promised to call again in a few days time, and I thought no I’ll make it a week.
Outside the medieval street, lit by a few lamps and from windows in the roof-top gables of the houses which faced into main street was quite magical. I stood looking at it through the haze of my breath on the glass and half expected it to disappear as the condensation cleared one breath to another.
The buildings on either were tall and crooked, bent over with moss-covered roofs which in the almost dark appeared like lush green velvet. The buildings were more Flemish or Dutch, than English, with stepped gables like nothing I had seen before, was I still in England? Each house was at a slightly different angle to the street. They all seemed to lean in as though watching what was going on, like a line of nosey women with their arms folded beneath their gables. Perhaps they were. Though it seemed deserted and still, apart from the smoke from the chimneys.
But as I looked, I saw something move, suddenly surprising in all that stillness. It was a figure a long way off, at the end of the street but not on the pavement, weaving its’ way down the middle of the road.
I thought I was seeing a ghost, the setting was perfect for it. I should soon see as the whatever, or whoever it was, was dancing towards me. Maybe I’d died on my way down and ended up in a childrens’ book of fairy stories just as I thought.
As the figure came closer I could make out it was a girl about twenty maybe, wearing white diaphanous clothes which billowed and swirled round her as she twirled and dipped. Oblivious of being watched or totally unconcerned about the junior voyeur in the telephone box, she danced as though the village was an empty theatre and the street her stage.
It occured to me that If this had been Crigglestone, by now a black van would have pulled up and whisked her away to my former place of employment for some nice warming electrical brain therapy.

A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN. (23) Misery Mansion

John Sunderland

New York, United States

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welcome to my college digs


student digs

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  • John Sunderland
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