Looking back I now realise that my student days were the most carefree days of my life. I also know I will never see their like again. Of the many wonderful memories I have of that time I will describe only one, because of the particular bearing it has on this narrative.
It was during the second year. I was on my way home one time after a dinner party at Ian’s, a good friend since my very first week at Exeter. Ian lived in a shared house about a mile from the campus and that mile has to be the happiest I have ever walked. It was a little before midnight, and one of those clear, sonorous, frosty nights that only exist in Russian fairy tales. Thousands upon thousands of stars were scattered right across the sky and that night they did not shine or twinkle, they glittered. Time and again I caught myself laughing out loud, causing my breath to come out in great silvery plumes, as I cast my mind back over the highlights of the evening- the hearty meal, the good cheer, the jokes, the stories, the gentle leg-pulling… but most of all I thought about her, the one whose name I cannot bring myself to mention even after all these years. I had never met her before, apparently she had come down from London to visit one of Ian’s housemates, and from the very first moment I was spellbound. I was utterly entranced by everything about her: her beauty, her charm, her sophistication, her smooth, smooth voice, but most of all by the kindness in her eyes when she looked at me. Was I in love? That night I was.
By now I had reached the grounds of Oak House. I was looking forward to a nice hot cup of tea, and as I turned the corner of Maple Court, the last building before my own block, I heard it. The strangest, most wondrous music ever.
I looked up to try and see where it was coming from. I soon found the source to be a room on the second floor that was bathed in a kind of orange glow. There was a figure standing at the window, and the music seemed to flow all around him, or perhaps more accurately, through him as it made its way out into the night. I was not surprised to see it was coming from that particular room, for I recognised the figure at the window. He was one of the Dreamers.
During my time at Exeter I was fortunate enough to meet so many special people, but every once in a while you would come across someone that was a class apart, someone with a kind of faraway, otherworldly air I could not even begin to describe, yet could recognise the moment I saw it. I called such people Dreamers because they reminded me of the characters from my favourite childhood fairy tale. The Dreamers was a story about these elf-like beings who came from a far-off, magical land, yet had been fated to live in the world of men. They were as naïve, innocent children, yet had far more wisdom than any of the proud, foolish and unhappy mortals they moved amongst.
You only ever saw Dreamers from afar; you could never get to know them. It is not that they were unfriendly or aloof, it is just that they moved in circles that were, and always would be, out of reach. I cannot recall, for instance, ever having come across one of them in any of my seminar groups or tutorials; but then the kind of degrees people like me were taking did not have courses called The Secret Language of the Renaissance, Troubadours and the chanson de geste, The Albigensian Crusade, or May ’68 and student counter-culture.
It was the same story outside class. I never really knew what they did in the evenings and at the weekend, but whatever it was it certainly did not bring them into contact with me. And in the summer, while you were slaving away at some mindless job so you could afford a few weeks’ mayhem on the Costa del Inquént, they would be off helping renovate a château somewhere in Corrèze, or busking in Copenhagen, or hitch-hiking to Istanbul, or working for an arts collective in Amsterdam… No, I concluded, glancing one last time at the mysterious figure at the window, people like me could never cross over into the magical world of the Dreamers. But in this, as in so many other things, I was only half right, because just two days later I was to meet him.
Matt and I had gone down to the Students Union to see Cindy and the Virgins, an all-girl indie band made up of Exeter University students. The Union bar was packed as it always was at the weekend. I had been there hundreds of times before and yet I still felt excited by the music, the bustle, the overlapping voices and laughter– the buzz of people having a good time. Getting to the bar involved a protracted squeeze and when we finally managed it Matt decided to get us two pints each to be on the safe side. Once out of the scrum we found ourselves six square inches of wall to lean against.
‘Good turn out,’ I said.
‘Indeed.’ Matt looked around. ‘Can you see Mr Biggar? He said he’d probably be coming along.’
Just then he caught sight of someone over my shoulder and called out, ‘Adam!’ I turned round and gave a start when I recognised the mysterious figure from the window. Matt introduced us and added with a mischievous grin, ‘For a student of the Dark Arts, Adam has a remarkably cultured attitude towards archaeology.’
Adam smiled engagingly and rolled his eyes as if to say: ‘Here we go again!’ His manner, so natural and friendly, immediately dispelled my feeling of awkwardness.
‘So you’re a Historian then?’ I asked.
‘Pay no attention to Matt,’ he replied with another smile. ‘I do have a passing interest in history, but I’m doing French and English.’
He turned to Matt. ‘So- is your Department still going ahead with the dig at that site near Glastonbury?’
‘And are you still looking for volunteers?’
‘We are. I’ll pop round next week with all the info. And don’t forget– if any of your friends want to come again they’ll be most welcome.’
Adam chuckled. ‘I think I know which particular friend you’d make most welcome, Matthew!’
Matt pretended to have been caught out and feigned embarrassment. ‘Yes, er, ahem, I don’t think we need go into that right now... Anyway, are you going to this evening’s entertainment offering?’
‘I certainly am. Cindy does single honours French. We do a couple of options together.’
‘You must know her quite well then.’
‘Yes, I suppose I do.’
‘What about the Virgins?’ asked Matt with a twinkle in his eye.
Adam chuckled again. ‘I’ve not yet had that pleasure.’
Just then Matt got called away by someone who looked suspiciously like a climber. For some reason I felt embarrassed asking Adam about the other night, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I did not.
‘You live up on the second floor in Maple don’t you?’ I began.
‘It’s just that I see you sometimes at the window when I’m on my way home. I live in Sycamore myself.’
‘Oh, right. Do you like it in Oak House?’
‘Me too. I never thought I’d enjoy living on campus as much as I do. My original idea was to move out in the second year, but now I’m so glad I didn’t.’
‘When I go past there always seems to be interesting music emanating from your room.’
He laughed. ‘Hope it’s not too loud!’
I laughed too. ‘No, no of course not. Actually, Adam, a couple of nights back I was coming home about midnight and you were playing something that was really cool. I know it was your room because when I went past I saw you at the window. I haven’t got a clue what it was– it had a sort of unusual, eastern feel to it. I don’t suppose you have any ideas who it was?’
Adam looked doubtful.
‘Doesn’t ring any bells I’m afraid,’ he answered after a moment’s reflection. ‘The problem is I play all sorts of music all the time. And not just my own stuff, but things friends bring round for me to try.’
‘That’s okay.’ I tried to sound unconcerned, but in fact I was terribly disappointed. Perhaps my face betrayed this because he asked,
‘Do you think you’d recognise it if you heard it again?’
‘No doubt about it!’
‘Well it’s a long shot, but why don’t you pop round and have a listen to some of my stuff?’
‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ I blurted, unable to suppress my excitement.
‘Not at all. Well, call round anytime– I can never say when I’ll be in, but you only live round the corner so it doesn’t matter. It’s Maple 3D.’
‘Okay, I will! Thanks, Adam, I appreciate it.’
Matt came back, we chatted a while longer and then Adam went off to join his friends.
‘Adam seems like a really nice guy,’ I remarked.
‘He is. In fact he’s got to be one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met… Anyway, I think it’s high time we were going in.’ He sighed. ‘Still no sign of that wastrel Mr Biggar, I see. I expect he’s been given detention again.’
We went to the main hall where the concert was being held, paid at the door, dutifully received the purple stamp on the back of our hands and went in. The hall was not packed out– that would have taken around eight hundred people, but there were enough in there to give the place some atmosphere, especially as the dim, intermittent lighting meant that you could not fully make out the faces of others. It somehow made clusters of people seem more intimate. I could not see Adam anywhere.
Matt, with a peculiar knack I had seen numerous times before, had timed things to perfection, because within a minute or so the first support act took to the stage. The Really Really Nice People turned out to be a bunch of snarling anarcho-punks. Their set was brash, loud and as far as I could tell, sprinkled with a fair amount of humour. Between each song the lead singer took obvious delight in railing at the ‘elitist students’ that made up the audience. Matt and I thought they were wonderful. The Really Really Nice People were followed by Wow Federation, a group that clearly took themselves a lot more seriously. Throughout the set they were bathed in a deep blue light that suited them and their strange, moody sound.
Both bands had gone down well, which set things up perfectly for the headliners. Cindy and the Virgins did not disappoint, and were soon rattling through a stomping, punked-up set that got the crowd going right from the start. Cindy may have only been playing to a few hundred students but she had a presence, a star quality I shall never forget. Ably supported by three very charming Virgins, she had us all eating out of her hand, and she knew it. She was like the High Priestess of some orgiastic mystery cult and we were the faithful, completely enthralled by her every move.
At the end of one especially joyous number Matt turned to me and shouted:
‘I think I’ve fallen in love!’
A couple more songs and that was it- we simply had to join the seething mass of humanity at the front of the stage that constituted Cindy’s most frenzied worshippers. The set ended with a rousing finale, and of course we all bayed and screamed till our Priestess returned to grace us with one last taste of her presence.
When the gig was finally over we went back to the bar for some much needed refreshment and ended up joining a very lively bunch from Matt’s Department. The rest of the evening was spent most enjoyably, with old bones and bits of pottery hardly mentioned once. I was still buzzing with excitement when Matt and I walked home and I resolved to see Adam the very next day.
When I eventually woke the following morning I decided not to pop round to Adam’s that day after all. I was afraid that if I went round straightaway it would be obvious just how keen I was to see him, and that was simply too embarrassing to contemplate. Over the ensuing days I kept finding excuses for putting it off, until eventually I began to feel as if I had left it too late altogether.
Nearly a week went by and I got up one morning in a particularly foul mood. Officially it was ‘just one of those days,’ but deep down I was angry with myself for having let such a unique opportunity pass me by. Adam, I decided, must have forgotten all about our conversation by now, so it would be awkward if I were to just turn up on his doorstep out of the blue. It seems ridiculous now that I had got myself so worked up about going round to a fellow student’s flat to listen to some music, but that was how I was back then. After nearly an hour of trying, and failing, to settle down to any kind of meaningful activity I finally shamed myself into leaving the flat.
When I got outside I immediately felt better, my spirits lifted by the sheer beauty of that morning. It was a clear day, with a light and scented breeze that came in playful gusts and spoke of a spring that would one day return. But it was only when I turned the corner of the building and the view opened up that the full majesty of that day was revealed. The sky was spectacular- a bright, joyful opalescence that stretched right across the heavens. Its triumphant march was only interrupted once, by a huge bank of clouds on the far horizon. This was vast like a continental land mass and even had its own inland sea, formed by a tear in the clouds that allowed you to see through to the sky beyond. That in itself was unusual, but what I found truly remarkable was the colour of that inland sea, for it was a different shade of blue to the rest of the sky: deeper, more mysterious. A blue I had seen before, only once, in a strange painting that had created a deep impression on me as a child.
I reached the main entrance to Adam’s flat, and was just about to go in when I noticed that someone had chalked the following on the wall:
I wish today would never ever end…
I found this terribly poetic and profound. I felt, I knew it had a higher meaning and that meaning lay just beyond my grasp. I was so close! Close to understanding a message in the secret language of the Dreamers.
I went straight up the stairway to Flat 3 and rang the bell. When I heard a door opening somewhere inside and the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor my heart started pounding. For a moment I considered beating a hasty retreat, but as soon as the door opened and I saw Adam’s friendly face all my apprehensions disappeared in a flash.
‘Hi!’ he said with a welcoming smile. ‘Come in!’
‘Hi. Hope this isn’t a bad time or anything.’
‘Not at all. Quite the reverse in fact- you’re a welcome distraction from a rather mundane translation.’
I had not tried to envisage what Adam’s room might be like, but even if I had I doubt my imagination could have prepared me for what I saw when he opened the door. He had managed to transform a standard student bedroom into something truly magical. It was a chaos of clutter—I immediately thought of Bilbo Baggins’ study—but instead of making the room seem crowded and cramped it actually created a strange sense of space. Perhaps it was because everything in there seemed to come together and form a harmonious whole. But I think it more likely that Adam had simply cast a spell, one that enchanted the eye and gladdened the heart.
He had supplemented the rather dwarfish Oak House issue bookcase with a larger one of his own. And no wonder. Both were packed to the gunnels with books, pot plants and an assortment of objects that would have made for a very interesting curios stall at an antiques fair. But for me what made the room most special was what Adam had done with the walls. His choice of posters, a mixture of fine art, black and white photography and graphic design, created an effect that was, if I may be forgiven for resorting to an over-worked expression, über-cool. I did not recognise any of the artwork at the time but over the years, through books and visits to exhibitions, I have been able to put names to some of what I saw that day.
To crown it all Adam had a wonderful, sweeping view over the campus and far beyond. The great bank of clouds was still there, but now it was edged in sunlight. It made me think of a line of Tennyson’s that spoke of a looming bastion fringed with fire...
‘Great view, isn’t it?’ remarked Adam, breaking my chain of thoughts.
He smiled and nodded. ‘Isn’t it! I’ve been really lucky, actually. I see all this through my window everyday and I’ve been blessed with some great flatmates.’
‘Me too. We’ve got Matt for a start! Er, is that one of your flatmates who wrote that enigmatic message on the wall by your entrance?’
‘Oh, you saw that did you?’ he asked with evident amusement. ‘Actually I’m not sure who writes those—a new one mysteriously appears every few weeks—but there’s a final year geographer living in the flat opposite who seems a good candidate. Anyway, I suppose I prefer not to know really, it all adds to their mystique...’ He looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, ‘So, would you like a tea or anything?’
‘No I’m fine, thanks.’ My own words sounded strange, almost as if someone else had uttered them, because I would have liked nothing better than to have had a cup of tea with Adam.
‘Sure? Okay, let’s listen to some music.’ He picked up a bunch of CDs from his desk. ‘I thought about what you said the other night. I’m not sure, but I’ve picked out a couple of possibilities.’
He played me a few songs. I could tell fairly quickly that none of them was the one I was after, but they were beautiful nonetheless and I was sorry each time he stopped a track to try something else. But I made sure I found out what each song was so I would be able to track them all down afterwards. If only I had asked Adam to lend me a pen and a piece of paper!
After another couple of songs Adam reached under his bed, pulled out two wooden boxes and placed them in front of me.
‘While we’re listening you might as well have a rummage through these. Who knows- you might see something that jogs the old memory,’ he explained.
The boxes, which housed his music collection, were obviously old, very well-made, and on two sides near the top had curved slots cut into them to serve as handles. I could just make out ‘Wm Stones Ltd’ printed on the side. I stroked one appreciatively.
‘Yes, aren’t they? I picked them up from a jumble back in Winchester. It’s what breweries used to keep beer bottles in. See- there used to be square compartments inside to separate the bottles. I took those out and now they’re perfect for storing and transporting stuff.’
The first box contained CDs. It was a strange assortment, with few of the campus favourites you would have found in a standard student collection (such as mine). There was some jazz, some Latin American music and a good number of French CDs which Adam described as ‘a rather erratic mélange of Breton folk, yé-yé pop, and sixties chansons de révolte.’ A lot fell outside my admittedly limited powers of classification. Indeed in the whole collection the only name I recognised was The Doors. I dearly wish I could have remembered more because I am sure there were many treasures in that box I will now never get to hear.
I moved on to the second box, which was full of cassettes. These were not pre-recorded, but tapes of music Adam had recorded himself. One of the cassettes at the top caught my eye because it had its own artwork.
‘What’s Radio 21?’ I asked reading the cover.
‘Oh, Radio Vingt-et-Un! That’s a radio station in Brussels I used to listen to during A-Levels. A couple of nights a week after eleven they used to play some really cool stuff, stuff you wouldn’t hear anywhere else, so I always had a tape ready and if something came on I liked I just hit Record.’
‘Okay, so what you ended up with was a disjointed collection of badly-recorded bits of songs, but on the other hand you’ve got something that’s totally personal, unique to you, something that holds so many memories...’
The next thing to catch my eye was a very battered cassette with ‘DEMO’ written on the cover in marker pen.
‘What about this?’
‘Oh that! I didn’t even know that was in there! It’s a live demo I did with The Phoenicians, a band I was in at school.’
I should not have been surprised. Someone as cool as Adam was bound to have been in a band. At that moment I regretted never having learnt to play a note myself.
‘What sort of stuff was it?’ I asked when I realised he was not going to elaborate.
He smiled and waved a dismissive hand. ‘Oh, you know- typical sixth-form alternative fare. We thought we were the new Felt... Oh, the follies of youth!’
‘Right…’ I nodded, but I had no idea who Felt were. ‘So, er, what did you play?’
‘Oh, guitar… some vocals…’ He sighed. ‘We weren’t brilliant, I’ll be the first to admit it, but we weren’t so bad either. And you know, I’m actually quite proud of what we did. We were certainly very earnest- and isn’t believing in what you do the most important thing in any creative endeavour? At any level?’
‘And I suppose you could say this tape is another record of a certain moment in time, a fragment of my carefree youth, of all those foolish, innocent dreams... and something truly precious, because it can never grow old…’ His voice trailed off and there was a wistful, almost sad look in his eyes. But he soon came back to the here and now, smiled and added with mock regret, ‘Oh dear, I’m rambling again- and we still haven’t found your song.’
I would have given a great deal to have borrowed every one of those tapes, especially the demo made by The Phoenicians, but I would never have dreamed of asking to borrow something that was obviously so personal and, if lost, irreplaceable.
Adam popped out to make himself a tea and while he was away I had a look at his books. A lot were connected with his course, as you would have expected, but there were many that were not. He had amassed quite a sizeable collection of books on art, photography, architecture, history, philosophy, archaeology and a range of other subjects. One that particularly caught my eye was called The Templar Mosaic, because of its striking cover which featured a swirl of esoteric symbols radiating celestial light. And because on the back it carried the following promise: This book is going to turn everything you thought you knew about Western civilisation completely on its head!
When Adam came back I showed him the book. ‘What’s this all about?’
‘Ah, The Templar Mosaic! Something a friend gave me. He picked it up by chance in a charity shop in town. He said it was one of the most incredible things he’d ever read. He was right.’
‘Absolutely. It’s a factual account but it reads like a gripping historical thriller, full of murder, mystery, intrigue, long-lost manuscripts, coded inscriptions, hidden clues in medieval churches...’
‘Sounds great!’ I exclaimed, and immediately felt foolish for having interrupted.
‘It is. But what’s really remarkable about it is that it’s serious. What I mean is, it’s not just another piece of sensationalist fluff that promises to reveal some earth-shattering secret and delivers nothing of the sort. Believe me, what I learnt back in the sixth form put me off that kind of book for life!’
‘Why, what happened?’
Adam chuckled at my eagerness. ‘Oh, a course we did in General Studies of all things! We were lucky enough to land Old Woodriff—or ‘Bryan Baby’ as he was affectionately known—for a term in the Lower Sixth. He based his course around a book called How to lie with statistics. Basically it showed how truth could be presented in such a way as to actually create falsehood.’
‘Sure. And it’s a lot easier than you might think. Imagine for instance I were to say there are more people living below the poverty line today than there were fifty years ago. What would that tell you?’
‘That things haven’t improved much. In fact they’ve got worse.’
‘Right. And that’s what you’re supposed to think. But it isn’t true! You see, although I told the truth, I didn’t tell the whole truth. What I failed to mention was the fact that the way the poverty line is now calculated has changed, which means loads of people who wouldn’t have been classed as living in poverty fifty years ago, now are.’
‘Sneaky, eh? What’s so clever about it is that I tell the truth and get you to create the lie. And without your even realising it!’
‘Simple but brilliant, isn’t it? As you can imagine this is a technique much loved by politicians and the media; in fact if you look carefully you can see they use it all the time... But what stuck in my mind most was when Bryan Baby explained the extent to which this technique had been latched onto by the self-appointed ‘experts’ in the field of the so-called unexplained, and used to knock out best-sellers ‘proving’ everything from the existence of UFO’s to the location of the Lost City of Atlantis.’
‘Yeah. It was absolutely fascinating, and struck a particular chord with me because I used to love those kind of books. I suppose the romantic in me has always wanted to believe there’s more to the world than the empirical here and now. I suppose that’s the attraction of these books for most people. And when you desperately want to believe something, then you’re so much easier to fool.’
‘Bryan Baby gave us some really interesting examples from one particular book—I can’t remember the name off hand, something about chariots I think—that claimed that the ‘gods’ of certain ancient civilisations were in fact a race of alien super beings that had visited our planet many centuries ago. The book sought to demonstrate that the memory of this visitation could still be found in traces of the culture and traditions of our ancestors, provided of course, you knew what you were looking for.’
‘Sounds a bit far-fetched!’
‘I agree. The premise is far-fetched, and yet the body of evidence presented in the book, when taken as a whole, was quite compelling. Or at least it was until Bryan Baby got hold of it! He started by showing us a documentary that had some independent experts look at the evidence.’ Adam chuckled. ‘You wouldn’t believe it! Time and again information was presented in such a way as to manipulate you into reaching the conclusion the author wanted you to reach.’
‘But how… how could he get away with it?’
‘Well, basically by sifting through a massive body of information, I suppose from standard works on ancient cultures, and only selecting the tiny amount he could use to support his thesis. And then he’d misrepresent or distort this information to make it show what he wanted it to show. Of course this sort of thing would never fool the specialist, but then it isn’t meant to- it’s the interested lay audience, people like you and me, that these bestsellers are built on.’
‘Incredible! I don’t suppose you can recall any specific examples?’
Adam thought for a moment.
‘Well, one chapter was all about the Nazca Lines in Peru, you know- the ones that can only be seen from the air?’
I nodded. ‘Yeah.’
‘If that’s the case, asks the author, what else could they be apart from an airstrip set up by the ancients to guide their extra terrestrial ‘gods’ to a safe landing? What the book didn’t mention was that all the internationally recognised experts who’ve been studying the lines for decades have come up with any number of theories about how and why they were made, all far more plausible than the ‘airstrip for flying saucers’ idea. And when you think about it– even in the unlikely event that aliens did pay us a visit, would beings capable of inter-stellar travel really need the Incas to knock a makeshift runway up for them?’
I laughed. Adam did too, then continued:
‘But I think the thing that convinced me most that the author wasn’t just a misguided individual who genuinely believed his own mad theories, but a devious manipulator, was the photograph of the so-called spaceship parking bays.’
‘What was that?’
‘Well, he wheeled out a photo of some of the lines that looked a bit like a human hand, and suggested that the ‘fingers’ were actually parking bays for our alien spacecraft once they’d landed. What was not clear from the photo however, and what the author signally failed to point out, was that the ‘hand’ was just a small section of a much larger design depicting some kind of bird. He also forgot to mention that the scale of what was shown in the photograph was very different from the other ones taken of the lines. It turned out that the ‘hand’ was only a few feet across, which meant if it was part of an inter-galactic airport, then the chariots of the gods would’ve been about the size of a sardine tin!’
‘I wish I was. The whole book was littered with these kinds of misrepresentations.’
‘I can’t believe it!’
Adam looked a little sad. ‘Awful, isn’t it? What I hate most is the cynicism, the way these people exploit the romantic idealism of others... So now you see why I usually give this kind of book a very wide berth.’
He fell silent for a moment.
‘Still,’ he added with a sigh, ‘this one isn’t like that. In fact I found it balanced and really well-researched, which made it all the more intriguing. Would you like to give it a try?’
‘Sure! Sounds just up my street.’
Just then there was a knock on the door and someone shouted, ‘Adam! Telephone!’
He got up and so did I. Though I would dearly have loved to have spent more time there, I did not want to outstay my welcome. I also had the feeling that whoever it was at the other end of the telephone line was going to be a lot more meaningful to Adam than I was.
‘Well, thanks for everything,’ I said by way of farewell. ‘I’ll return the book to you anon.’
‘Sorry I couldn’t be more help with your quest to find that song.’
‘Not at all- it was a pretty long shot anyway.’
I was pleased with the way things had gone, though I was bitterly disappointed we had been interrupted. Still, returning the book meant that I would have a reason to go round to Adam’s again, and something to talk about when I did. And next time I would be able to contribute more to the conversation than a few mumbled one-word answers! As soon as I got back to my room I opened The Templar Mosaic.