It appeared that Brother Ebrulf was not the only one blessed with well-timed flashes of inspiration, because one fine morning I weighed in with one of my own. It came to me while I was in bed, struggling to get the better of a rather spiteful hangover. Despite feeling less than one hundred percent, I was in a quite a buoyant mood. I was thinking about the surprisingly high level of interest Jane, Boom and the others had shown in The Templar Mosaic, when the thought suddenly occurred to me: since they all obviously shared my fascination for the strange and the unexplained, why not take things a step further? Why not harness this shared enthusiasm and set about investigating one of these unsolved mysteries ourselves?
I knew there and then I had stumbled upon a brilliant idea and my mind immediately began to race ahead, trying to imagine how it would all unfold. We would probably start by deciding on the ground rules for an investigation, methods and so forth, and then select the topics we wanted to look at first. Matt and Mr Biggar, with their analytical frame of mind would, no doubt, opt for something laden with factual evidence like the Kennedy assassination or the Whitechapel murders, whilst Boom, Jane and myself would be drawn to more esoteric areas. But no matter how we went about it, I was sure that once we got going it would be really exciting: for what could be more thrilling than being part of a close-knit, select, almost conspiratorial group, working together in order to get to the bottom of a mystery no-one had ever been able to solve?
I could already see us bumping into each other in the library or the bar, sharing our latest discoveries in hushed tones, arranging to meet up with the rest of the group later so we could go through everything in detail. And when we did all get together, I could just imagine the intellectual sparks flying, the discussions, the theorizing, the cross-fertilization of ideas, the heated debates, the arguments... in short everything I had always dreamed university would be!
Of course as soon as other people got wind of what we were up to they would want to join in too- and the whole thing would begin to snowball. So why stop there? I realised that when the new academic year started in October, we could take things to the next level and register ourselves as a full-blown student society. Then the sky really would be the limit! Everyone would want to be part of what was clearly the coolest, the most exciting, and the most intellectually stimulating society in the whole University. All I needed now was to come up with a name that did it justice. My beer-addled brain struggled for some time, and I was overjoyed when I finally found it: The Ex-Files. Surely no other name could better sum up what we were about, whilst at the same time putting clear water between ourselves and those misguided souls who saw a ghost lurking round every corner and a government conspiracy in every box of cornflakes?
Thoroughly pleased with myself, I allowed my mind wander still further ahead. I saw Boom and myself manning the Ex-Files stall at the student societies’ fair during Freshers’ Week. Ah! Freshers’ Week! Was my own really so long ago? I smiled to myself as I recalled how naive and awkward I was back then, how strange it all seemed, and how exciting! Next year’s freshers would be just as wide-eyed and impressionable as we were, and with no small pleasure I pictured all the bright young things coming over to our stall. Boom would be turning on the charm, making everyone laugh, whilst I would be more serious, and tantalise them with an outline of the more intriguing aspects of an Ex-Files investigation. And of course they would be signing up in droves for what was obviously the most brilliant society at Exeter!
It followed that if the society was a runaway success, then I, as the Ex-Files’ founding father, would really be in demand. I indulged myself still further, imagining all sorts of alluring scenarios that demonstrated just how popular I had become: in one I would be sitting in the Union coffee bar, chatting with a few friends after lectures, and suddenly some breathless, excited girl would come rushing up (for some reason the main protagonists in these scenarios tended to be female) simply dying to tell me about something really important she had just found out! I would be indulgent of course, listen attentively, offer words of encouragement and perhaps a few recommendations for further lines of enquiry. And everyone would know that this was Ex-Files business, and everyone would know that I was the one who had started it all!
In another imaginary scenario—one of my favourites—I would have just arrived at The Nursery and someone would call me over to join a half a dozen society members sitting in the Diogenes Club. They would be in the midst of a heated discussion and I would be asked my opinion on certain controversial aspects of the case they were investigating. I would have them spellbound for a good while, and then, as the evening wore on I would shift the conversation onto lighter matters, and soon the jokes would start, the teasing, the banter, the juvenile antics. When closing time came everyone would still be buzzing, and we would all be invited back to someone’s flat. And there, over copious cups of tea, our discussion would grow more serious again, and we would talk long into the night about anything and everything, the possibility of life on other planets, the symbolism of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the true relationship between matter, space and time...
There was no question in my mind that such things would really come to pass, and as a result I would become one of the most well-known and popular faces on campus! I reflected that it might even elevate me to a level where Adam and the other Dreamers would look upon me as something of a kindred spirit.
I allowed myself a few more days’ day-dreaming and then decided it was time to act. We only had a couple of months to the end of this academic year, and if things were not up and running before the summer we would have nothing in place for an official launch at the start of the new term in October. The first thing I needed to do was to get Matt and Boom involved. With campus heavyweights like them behind it, the project was bound to take off. The trouble was that for some reason I felt really awkward about approaching them. It was not as if I did not believe in the project- far from it. Was it that I was embarrassed to reveal to others something that had become such a deeply personal dream?
Whatever the reason, the Ex-Files would probably never have happened if I had not chanced upon Matt, for the first time in ages, one morning in the kitchen making toast.
‘Good morning!’ he beamed.
It was now or never. ‘Matt...’ I began nervously. ‘Do you remember that book I borrowed off Adam...’
He listened attentively while I ran through my idea. I could see his mind working, but I could not tell what he thought about my proposal. When I had finished he said:
‘Sounds promising, but be warned– these things always take more time and effort to get going than you’d think.’
‘Have you mentioned it to Boom yet?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘Well if I were you, that’s what I’d do. If you get Boom on board you’ve got a good chance of succeeding. Anyway, I’d better be on my way. Duty calls.’
And with that he was gone. I was disappointed Matt had not embraced my idea with more enthusiasm, but I could fully understand why. He already had the busiest social life of any student that had ever set foot in Exeter, and on top of that this was his final year, so why should he want anything else on his plate? Besides, how could I expect anyone else to experience the same level of excitement I had when I dreamt about the Ex-Files?
And so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I decided to broach the subject with Boom. I had not seen him for a while, which did not help. One of the peculiarities of university life I had noticed is that if you made the slightest change to your routine you could go from seeing someone almost every day to your paths hardly crossing at all.
Just as I got to Boom’s front door one of his flatmates was coming out. He told me ‘His Lordship’ was in and I followed the noise—cheers, shouts and laughter—to the lounge where Boom, Hugh and a couple of their flatmates, Jim and ‘Moggy,’ were sitting round the table. From the general debris on show: beer cans, pizza boxes and a pack of cards, I could see the boys were relaxing after a hefty session of poker.
‘Look what the cat’s dragged in!’ shouted Hugh as I appeared in the doorway. Everyone laughed. I did too, though unlike the others I knew there was a genuinely unfriendly sentiment behind the greeting.
‘Right,’ said Jim, getting up. ‘Pub time. Anyone coming?’
‘I’ll see you down there in a couple of hours,’ answered Boom. ‘Got a practical to write up before tomorrow.’
‘Be a girl, then.’
‘You won’t be seeing me, either,’ said Hugh with a sly grin.
‘Yeah. Got a hot date lined up.’
‘It’s not another one with a face like a punctured balloon is it?’
‘You wish! Anyway, her face is the last thing I’ll be concentrating on once we get back to her place!’ The others all laughed. There was a little more banter then Jim and ‘Moggy’ went out.
‘Right,’ said Boom, turning to me. ‘Is this a social call?’
‘Sort of…’ I was starting to get nervous. ‘Got something I’d like to run by you.’ I was desperately hoping Hugh would leave us to it but I soon saw there was no way he was going to. ‘Well, I’ve had a bit of idea and er, I ran it past Matt… Well, he liked it and suggested I ought to sound you out.’ I hoped adding Matt’s seal of approval would give my words more legitimacy, and might deter Hugh from shooting me down in flames.
Boom sat back in his chair. ‘I’m all ears,’ he said with a grin.
I began by noting our shared interest in all things mysterious and how it might be fun if a group of us set about investigating one or two of these mysteries ourselves. I could see I was not selling the idea very well, which made me even more nervous. The mocking smile that never left Hugh’s face only made things worse.
‘And,’ I concluded, rounding off a pretty dismal performance, ‘if it takes off—and I’m sure it will—we could even turn it into a cool student society next year. I thought about calling it the Ex-Files...’
‘The X-Files?’ scoffed Hugh. ‘Think that’s already been done!’
‘No, the Ex-Files- as in e. x.’
‘So what difference does that make?’ he sneered.
‘Quite a bit actually.’ I could barely contain my embarrassment. I turned to Boom. ‘Look- we all know this stuff’s already been done to death, but that’s the whole point. Everyone thinks these cases are done with, finished, no longer relevant, so literally, ‘ex’ files. But we’d be showing that there’s still some life in them...’ I trailed off, struggling for something else to say.
‘Actually I quite like the name,’ said Boom quietly.
‘Fair enough,’ conceded Hugh, pointedly addressing Boom. ‘But can you imagine what’d happen if you tried to turn this into a student society? Every geek, anorak and loser would come crawling out of the woodwork to join up. Sure, it’d be popular– popular with every sad, spotty Herbert on campus!’ He sniggered. ‘And guess who’d be their pin-up boy!’
Boom frowned. It took him a good while to deliver his verdict: ‘Can’t help feeling Hugh’s got a point. If we run with this I think we should keep things in the family for now.’
‘Sure,’ I answered, trying not to show my crushing disappointment. I did not agree, but I did not want an argument either, which was exactly what Hugh was hoping to provoke.
‘Right,’ announced my tormentor as he was getting up, obviously satisfied his job was done. ‘I’ll leave you geeks to it.’ As he was heading through the door he turned and asked, ‘Do you want me to send Creepy in?’
Boom laughed. ‘Aha! So that’s your hot date for tonight, is it?’ He got up himself and turning to me, added, ‘Well, I suppose I’d better be cracking on as well. Keep me posted.’
I left Boom’s in a pretty dejected state. I had virtually decided to give up on the Ex-Files altogether, and in a way I am surprised I did not, since throwing in the towel the moment the going got tough was the story of my life. I suppose I kept at it because deep down I knew this was my one and only chance of achieving something that would bring me to the threshold of that other world, the world inhabited by the Dreamers. Of course I knew that I could never be part of that world myself, but I might, for one brief moment, be able to gaze upon its wonders without being overwhelmed by a crushing sense of sadness, humility and awe.
By the following morning I had cheered up quite considerably. On reflection I decided things were nowhere near as bad as I originally thought. Boom may not have welcomed my idea with open arms—that was mainly down to Hugh’s presence—but he had not rejected the idea out of hand either. If he did come on board others were bound to follow and everything would fall into place. As for his doubts about turning the Ex-Files into an official student society, I was sure I could bring him round to the idea once things got underway and he saw the potential for attracting a much more ‘interesting’ clientele than that idiot Hugh had suggested. I decided there and then to see what Adam thought about it all, and for once went round to his flat straight away.
I was brimming with confidence and so when I got to Adam’s entrance and saw the cryptic message:
It’s time for us to be moving on…
I took it to mean this was a time for looking ahead and for bold, decisive action. One of Adam’s flatmates answered the door. I did not know his name but he was someone I recognised and was always very friendly whenever I saw him around campus.
I found Adam sitting at his desk. He seemed quite busy.
‘Is this a bad time?’ I ventured.
‘No, not at all.’
Despite my new-found confidence I still felt awkward about broaching the subject of the Ex-Files. Instead I said the first thing that came into my head.
‘He’s really nice, the guy who let me in just now.’
‘Yeah, I think so.’
‘Yeah, we get on really well. I’ve known him since the first year.’
‘So, is he from your Department?’
Adam laughed. ‘God no! Tom’s a physicist.’
I laughed too. ‘He doesn’t look much like a physicist! He must know Creepy then.’
Adam raised an eyebrow. ‘Creepy?’
‘Yeah– ‘Creepy’ Crawley. One of Boom’s flatmates. He’s a physicist as well. You’ll have seen him around. He looks just like Gollum out of Lord of the Rings and apparently he’s embraced his lifestyle as well.’
‘Not half,’ I answered, starting to warm to the subject. ‘He’s got some pretty nasty habits, but Boom and the rest of the flat don’t let him have it all his own way. They keep thinking up things to give him something to think about.’
‘Oh. Such as?’
I told Adam some of the pranks Boom and the others had played on Creepy. After a while, Adam stopped me.
‘But what exactly has this individual done to his flatmates?’ He did not sound very pleased.
I was floundering. ‘Well, you know, he’s one of these people you’d really not want to to live with...’ Even to me that sounded a little hollow, especially as Boom and the others were not the most tidy or considerate flatmates you could ever hope to meet.
‘I still don’t see why a campaign of persecution is necessary.’
‘Well, you know...’
Adam sighed. ‘I mean, wouldn’t the adult way be for them to talk to him about it, instead of all ganging up and conspiring to make his life a misery?’
‘Sure,’ I admitted, suitably chastened.
‘This kind of persecution is something I feel quite strongly about. You see I suffered from bullying myself when I was at secondary school. One of the in-crowds decided they didn’t like me—I never really found out why—and went to great lengths to make sure I knew about it.’
‘Oh,’ I nodded, trying to look as sympathetic as I could.
‘You know what it’s like when you’re at that age,’ he went on, ‘you’re painfully sensitive and self-conscious. Being accepted by your peers is the most important thing in the world. And conversely, being the object of everyone’s scorn is horrendous. In fact it’s absolutely unbearable!’
‘Yes indeed,’ he agreed sadly. ‘Things got so bad that I just couldn’t bear it any longer. I felt so ashamed, so alone, I didn’t feel as if I could tell anyone- my parents, my teachers, anyone…Fortunately my mother got wind of it—mothers are truly wonderful things!—and my parents soon pulled me out of that school.’
‘I shudder to think what would’ve become of me if they hadn’t...’ His voice trailed off and I could see he was looking back to those dark days.
‘I’m sure the boys don’t mean any harm...’ I mumbled vaguely, trying to retrieve the situation.
‘But who are they to judge what effect their actions are having?’ he asked bitterly.
I did not know what to say. I felt terrible. Although I had never been involved in any of the pranks Boom and the others had played on Creepy, the obvious delight I had shown in relating them to Adam must have made me look as culpable as they were. We chatted for a while about this and that but it was all a little strained and I soon took my leave. I did not mention anything about the Ex-Files.
As I was walking home from Adam’s I recalled an incident from my own schooldays that I had not thought about in many years. It involved Simon Cheeseman, one of my classmates. Cheeseman was one of those unfortunate people at school everyone despised and picked on. His shabby clothes and less than spotless appearance marked him out as the school ‘scruff’ and rendered him fair game for the rest of us. Looking back I do not recall feeling particular animosity towards Cheeseman, he was quite an inoffensive character really, but that did not prevent me joining in when others started to taunt him. I quite enjoyed it.
There was one particular incident I would rather not think about but can never forget. Once, during the school lunch break I was hanging around at the nearby shops with a few friends when we spotted Cheeseman coming out of the Chemists. When he saw us he looked horrified.
‘Buying some soap, Cheeseman?’
‘Don’t be daft! He doesn’t know what soap is!’
‘Get a wash!’
‘He doesn’t know what that is either!’
We all started laughing and jeering and had barely noticed the woman who followed Cheeseman out of the shop. It turned out to be his mother. At this point Cheeseman became even more distraught. I have since wondered if he was worried about his mother, not wanting her to see the sort of treatment he was routinely exposed to at school, or if he was afraid we would begin to throw insults at her too. But whatever the reason, the anguish on his face was truly awful, he was like a cornered animal, wounded and terrified.
Cheeseman ran back to his mother, threw his arms around her and buried his face in her rather threadbare coat. Just before we turned and ran off laughing she looked at me. I will never forget the look in her eyes, a haunting look that expressed so many things: the pain she felt at seeing her son being taunted, and the helplessness she felt at being unable to shield him from it; the sudden realisation that this was something he had to endure every day of his life; the shame that her family’s poverty was common knowledge and was the reason why her son was singled out by the rest of us; and the shock and disbelief that anyone could be so cruel to her son, whom she loved so dearly and knew to be kind and sensitive. No, I will never forget that look for as long as I live. And it was exactly the same look I saw in Adam’s eyes when he was telling me about his own schooldays.
That was the last time I ever went round to Adam’s flat. I simply felt too awkward. On the odd occasion I saw him around campus we would both say hello, but I could feel there was a distance between us, a rift that could not be healed. And yet, in spite of all these ill omens, the Ex-Files did come into being, albeit in a rather curtailed form. They even survived into my final year, but sadly I never managed to convince Boom we should form a student society. And that, in rather less than a nutshell, is how it all began. Now that I have finally got to the beginning of my story, all that remains is for me to tell it. But before I do (and here I can fully sympathise with your groans of despair, Dear Reader, fearing I shall never finish a tale that has taken a full eight chapters just to begin!) I feel I should, in time honoured literary fashion, bring the introductory part of this narrative to a proper close.
After Exeter we all went our separate ways. Gradually, and without even realising it, I lost touch with most of the people I had known there. Matt went on to do a PhD at the University of Manchester. The last I heard, he was roaming around Central Asia, looking for the site of the Lost City of Itíl. Knowing Matt, I have no doubt that he found it. Mr Biggar, too, ended up doing something he loved. Apparently he had been selected for an international programme that was studying marine wildlife off the coast of Southern California.
Sadly the Nursery Tavern is no more. A couple of years after we graduated Annie finally retired and the pub’s new owners—one of those despicable franchises that took over the licensing trade when it was taken away from the breweries—wasted no time in completely gutting the place and transforming the once glorious Nursery into a soulless replica of every other property in their portfolio. I fear these philistines, who have already done so much damage to this important part of our cultural heritage, will not stop until they have destroyed it altogether.
As for Adam, after my second year at Exeter I never saw him again. During my final year he was away studying abroad, an integral part of a Modern Languages degree. Someone said he had gone on a UN funded conservation project somewhere in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa. From time to time I used to picture him out there, in some remote, dusty village the modern world had passed by. Night would have fallen, and after a long day’s work Adam would be sitting round a campfire with some of the villagers, listening to their tales of the old colonial days and the great caravans that used to come down from the north on their way to the markets of Ayoun al-Atrous and Timbedra. The night would grow cool, and the conversation would die away as each became lost in his own thoughts. All around it would be silent apart from the crackling of the fire and the occasional gust of wind barely strong enough to rustle the tops of the palm trees. There, in the distance you could just make out the outline of an old, long-abandoned legionnaire fort bathed in the moonlight. And beyond that the desert, an endless expanse of wind, sand and stars.