Almost There

A journey

Chapter One

I suppose it all started the day I received Boom’s e-mail:

 

           Get over here now! Just came across something that could blow the Files wide open!

 

I have to say I was intrigued. Very intrigued. Boom may have had his faults, but he was not prone to exaggeration. Especially where the Ex-Files were concerned.

 

Boom and I had first met some years earlier as students at the University of Exeter. Although I did not really get to know him till the the second year I, like many others, knew of him well before then– his reputation for madcap escapades had seen to that. Whenever you heard, say, that some impatient revellers had staged an impromptu party on the top of a bus shelter, or that Lord Kitchener, mounted proudly on his charger outside the County Court building, had suddenly taken to wearing ladies’ underwear (on his head) you could be sure Boom was involved. In the so-called ‘real’ world such exploits would no doubt seem frivolous, puerile even, but in our world they never failed to fire the imagination.

 

I think we admired Boom so much because he embodied a sense of freedom, an innocence, an exuberance that burned brightly in us all. More than that I believe he made us aware, on some deep unconscious level, that this was a truly magical moment in our lives, one I now know would never be repeated. Perhaps that is why we found discussing his antics so exciting. I can remember spending many a happy hour at the Union coffee bar between lectures doing just that. We would be chatting merrily away about everything and anything, but if Boom’s name came up, the tone of the conversation always changed. The atmosphere would become expectant, conspiratorial almost, especially if his latest exploit was considered particularly foolhardy or daring, like the time he and some of his ‘Merry Men’ staged a late night raid on Ashburn Grange, the hall of residence reserved for post graduates. The plan was to set off the fire alarms, then hide in the bushes nearby to see if any half-dressed lecturers were ‘smoked out’. None were apparently. Or the time Boom and company were coming home from the pub and thought it might be nice to call in at St Hilda’s High, the posh girls’ school situated about a mile from the University, and treat the boarders to a midnight serenade. The group were barely halfway through a varied repertoire (of rugby songs, mainly) when they felt compelled to evacuate the hallowed grounds of St Hilda’s by the appearance of Mrs Crump, the formidable headmistress of that institution. Her subsequent demand that the University authorities find those responsible so she could ‘give them a piece of her mind’ came to nothing, other than sparking the rumour that what she was really after was not retribution, but a repeat performance.

 

Although Boom could drink with the best of them and was not averse to the odd ‘dust-up’ when the occasion demanded it, I would not like to give the impression he was just another of those beer-swilling rowdies that are ten-a-penny at any British university. For one thing his laboratory work and examination results placed him in the top three percent of the Department of Biochemistry. He was also a good sportsman, possessed of a ready wit, rakish charm and that supreme self-confidence girls seem to find irresistible. Even the ones who deny it. Nevertheless it was his devil-may-care attitude to life that people found most attractive, an attitude that perhaps found its greatest expression one legendary night at the Plaza Curry House.

 

The Plaza itself was something of a legend in those days. Situated in an anonymous side street on the fringes of the city centre, it was hardly prepossessing; but its dingy exterior, peeling wall paper, cracked lino floors and trestle tables covered in dubious-looking oilcloth only added to its mystique. The same could be said for Charlie, the Plaza’s owner. Said to be from the Horn of Africa, this Charlie was a jovial soul, whose broad grin never wavered despite the tiresome antics of the drunken students that formed the bulk of his clientele. But then only the drunk would have considered eating at the Plaza. It has never ceased to astound me that no-one ever contracted food poisoning there. People did try and put forward theories to account for this. Some argued that the legions of E. coli, botulism and salmonella that were presumed to inhabit the place were so busy battling each other for final mastery of this Promised Land, they never had any time left to spend on the customers. Less controversial was the notion that the amount of chilli Charlie and his henchmen used to heap in those infernal curries would have killed ninety-nine percent of all known germs, and left the other one percent seriously considering its position. And herein lay the Plaza’s popularity: Charlie’s ‘cuisine’ was seen as a challenge, a rite of passage that many a student felt they had to undergo. Everything on the menu was classified according to its chilli content and nothing else. Dishes lying at the milder end of the scale could give you plenty to think about, but were rarely ordered: it was considered bad form to go lower than a ‘Hottie.’ And there were a number of degrees up from this, with appetising names such as ‘Killer’ and ‘Suicide.’ Last of all came the infamous ‘Charlie’s Special.’ I only ever saw one once. It looked like a heap of volcanic lava that was about to melt through the plate. Few were ever drunk enough or foolish enough to order a ‘Special’. Even fewer were known to have finished one.

 

From the somewhat biased and two-dimensional caricature I have drawn of Boom, the reader has probably already guessed that he counted amongst Charlie’s regular customers. The night in question was, according to subsequent accounts, a typical Saturday night at the Plaza. Waves of students kept rolling up as the pubs shut up shop, bringing helpings of laughter, cheering and singing with them. One group of freshers marched up to Charlie and announced they were on a snap inspection from the Public Health Department. That Charlie’s aplomb remained unshaken by this would have surprised no-one; what was remarkable was that he could still find an indulgent smile for a jape he had had to endure so many times before. Boom arrived around midnight with some of the usual suspects. He ordered a ‘Special’, which was rare but not unheard of. However he soon caused consternation when, having tried a few mouthfuls, he called Charlie over and asked him to take the curry back to the kitchen and ‘hot it up a bit’. Even the unflappable Charlie was taken aback for a moment, presumably weighing up the extent to which a death on the premises would be bad for business. Nonetheless he complied with Boom’s request. By now the rest of the ‘diners’ had got wind of what was going on. People started to gather round Boom’s table to see if this madman could actually finish this very special ‘Special.’ Gasps of surprise and hoots of encouragement were followed by loud cheers from all present as the last mouthful went down. Boom later admitted that the curry had ‘nearly blown his slats off,’ but it had been worth it, for even if some misguided soul did try to emulate his feat in the future, everyone would know who had been the first to conquer this particular Everest.

 

Boom and I moved in very different circles and it is highly unlikely we would ever have become friends had not an unexpected change in circumstances brought me into contact with a friend of his, another remarkable individual.

Accommodation-wise, my second year at Exeter had been well mapped out before I finished my first. I had planned to move into a shared house with a group of friends, when for reasons that need not detain us here, the whole thing fell through at the last minute. It was looking as if I would be starting the new term with nowhere to live, when at the eleventh hour the University accommodation office found me a room in one of their self-catering halls of residence.

 

Oak House consisted of three four-storey blocks built on a hillside at the edge of campus, which gave sweeping views over the University and beyond. Each block contained twenty flats and each flat housed eight students. It was said to be quite a good place to live, and I was greatly relieved to have been given a place. Nevertheless I can still remember the strong feeling of trepidation I had the first time I walked up to my new front door. I had no idea who my new flatmates were, and was keenly aware that if they turned out to be unpleasant I would be in for a very long year. Happily, I need not have worried. I got on well with everyone, and became quite close to some of them, in particular Matt, a final year archaeologist.

 

At first glance Matthew Bright did not seem particularly special. He was skinny, a little dishevelled, with tousled mousy hair and a thoughtful, careworn face that made him look older than his years. Yet Matt was one of those extremely rare individuals who, without trying–or even being aware of it–immediately inspired affection and respect in everyone he met. It was impossible to say what it was about Matt that made him so likeable. True, he was kind, witty, interesting and fun to be with, but so were quite a few people I knew. I doubt if anyone will ever be able to fathom the secret of Matt’s uniqueness. If they do, they will bottle it and sell it on every street corner.

 

Matt’s popularity and wide range of interests meant that I did not see much of him around the flat. He was out most nights, and usually spent his weekends on archaeological digs, rock climbing (he was a keen climber) or doing goodness knows what else, which was a pity because a night out with Matt was always an experience and invariably brought you into contact with interesting people you would never have met otherwise. And so when Matt popped into my room one Saturday night and asked if I wanted to come along to a “Vicars and Tarts” party, he did not need to ask twice. We soon sorted out my lack of clerical attire. I dug out a black crew neck and Matt fashioned me a dog collar out of white card and sellotape. Matt finished off his own outfit by putting a large cardboard crucifix suspended on a bootlace round his neck and off we went.

 

The party was at a large student house in one of Exeter’s Victorian suburbs. By the time we arrived it was in full swing and I was pleased to see everyone had taken the party theme seriously, with all the ‘vicars’ in clerical attire similar to our own. A few had even managed to get their hands on genuine church vestments. The ‘tarts’ had also dressed for the occasion, and Matt and I were both deeply moved by such a heavenly array of mini-skirts, fishnet stockings and high-heeled boots. We managed to squeeze our way to the kitchen via the lounge, which had been cleared of its furniture in order to make a dance floor. The kitchen looked like a kitchen always does at a student party: a bomb site strewn with wine bottles and beer cans. There were even a few with liquid still in them. And there, in the thick of things as usual, was Boom, spinning an evidently entertaining yarn to a group of his friends. His otherwise impeccable ecclesiastical garb was given a rather sinister slant by a pair of wraparound sunglasses. He spotted us and came over.

 

‘Hi Matt!’ he shouted over the music.

Matt recoiled in horror. ‘Matt? Matt? How dare you!’ he thundered. ‘The name is Father Godfrey and don’t you forget it!’

Boom pretended to be abashed. ‘Sorry Father, or may I call you ‘Dear Papa’?’

‘You may not,’ answered Matt sternly. He surveyed first Boom, then his friends with a severity I felt may have been tempered by a certain indulgence. ‘I see that you and the, erm, rest of the brethren have already been partaking of the communion wine, and with a zeal that borders on the devotional. But I am forgetting my manners! Do you know Brother Boldock?’ he asked, indicating me. ‘We live together, though not in the strictly biblical sense, you understand.’

‘Hi,’ said Boom with one of his characteristic wolfish grins.

‘This is the Venerable Boom, Grand Vizier of the Sacred Order of Bottom Inspectors,’ announced Matt with due solemnity, ‘but you may call him ‘Your Reverence’ for short.’

‘I don’t like to stand on ceremony,’ explained Boom modestly. He turned to Matt. ‘So, Father Godfrey, I trust all goes well in the diocese?’

‘Indeed, indeed. But we are living in wicked times, as Your Reverence is only too well aware. I mean, look around you, are you not utterly dismayed by such scenes of debauchery?’

 

We looked around. Some of the vicars, perhaps under the influence of more communion wine than they were used to, were acting in ways that were not entirely befitting their station. The tarts on the other hand were acting in ways that were entirely befitting theirs. Though not utterly dismayed by this behaviour I have to admit I was a little disappointed, mainly because I was itching to participate myself.

 

Matt shook his head and sighed. ‘Thank God there are still those amongst us who are willing to tackle evil face to face! Take Brother Michael over there,’ he continued, indicating a cleric locked in fierce embrace with a comely blonde in blue fishnet stockings, ‘struggling heroically to induce that wretch to embrace the strait and narrow.’

‘So that’s what they mean by “speaking in tongues”!’ remarked Boom with a grin.

Matt looked somewhat perplexed. ‘Ahem, yes. One can only imagine how distressing it must be, having to endure such close proximity to that lascivious creature.’

‘He seems to be sticking to his task with some determination.’

‘He does, he does,’ agreed Matt with another sigh, ‘but then Brother Michael does come from a long line of ecclesiastics. An ancestor of his was once declared a heretic and condemned to be strung up by the Cistercians.’

‘Painful.’

‘Quite. But enough of this banter. A little bird tells me you’re having a party in the near future.’

‘We are. Well, when I say “party,” it’s more of an ecumenical get-together, you know, tea, cucumber sandwiches, that sort of thing.’

‘And when exactly will this “ecumenical get-together” take place?’

‘Next Friday, after the pubs, er, I mean churches, close.’

Matt looked at me and nodded. ‘We shall endeavour to attend, if only to ensure the correct level of propriety is maintained.’

‘I’ll try and save a couple of fallen women for you.’

I left the two clerical heavyweights discussing parochial affairs and went for a mingle. In the corridor I bumped into Sarah and Louise, two friends from my Department. The girls soon had me in stitches, recounting the latest antics of a particularly despised lecturer, when suddenly the music stopped. This was followed by a loud cheer– clearly the party tape had come to an end. Before any of the hosts had time to rectify the situation Boom strode into lounge and bellowed,

‘Mr Biggar– the tape!’

 

The person addressed as ‘Mr Biggar’ who, with his fresh face and wavy blond hair, reminded me of Blondie Peterson from the film Stalag 17, went over to the sound system and put a cassette in.

 

‘Is it cued up?’ demanded Boom in the same imperious tones. Mr Biggar said nothing but then he did not need to, because his contemptuous sideways glance, followed by a world-weary roll of the eyes that clearly questioned the sanity of the person capable of posing such a question, spoke volumes. I can only assume Boom was satisfied by this response, because he went to the middle of the room and started chanting:

‘Rock-a-Boom! Rock-a-Boom! Rock-a-Boom!’

 

This brought half a dozen others, including Matt and Mr Biggar, running to take their place beside him. Just as the last one got into position, a strange noise started emanating from the sound system. It was a kind of high-pitched, modulating whine reminiscent of the sound effects from some long forgotten 1950’s science fiction movie. If this was strange, the effect it had on Boom and company was even stranger. They started to jerk about and then suddenly, as if on cue, all froze in a variety of grotesque poses, like a row of mannequins left in the lurch by a mischievous window dresser.

 

Thankfully this tableau vivant lasted but a few moments. The whining sound, which turned out to be the intro to a song, unexpectedly gave way to an explosion of drums, saxophone and wild female vocals, causing those insane clergymen to jerk back to life and commence a frenzied gyration only they could have called dancing. Though long aware of the powerful fascination sin and iniquity holds for mortal man, I was still shocked to see how quickly everyone present, clergy and laity alike, rushed to join the dancing vicars. I too must have succumbed to the madness of the moment because I somehow found myself amidst that chaos of flailing limbs and thrusting bodies. The ‘music’ (surely too small a word to describe those satanic, yet profoundly intoxicating harmonies!) was obviously used as a sort of theme tune by Boom and his friends, because at certain points they went into a series of well-choreographed and hilarious dance routines that were immediately copied by the rest of us. It was those moments I dreaded most of all, because it was precisely at those moments that we went beyond being merely a collection of misguided souls caught up in an unholy bacchanal and became something far, far worse: a single body, a single mind, a single will, exultant in its raw depravity. May God help us all.

 

Sometime later, when the party had reached its ‘mellow’ stage, I went to the kitchen looking for Matt. I found him rooting around in various nooks and crannies, clearly looking for something. He looked up and said, ‘You know, I’m sure I had another can squirrelled away in here some—’

 

His words were interrupted by a loud crash from the lounge that killed the music followed by a lot of aggressive shouting. We went to investigate and saw Mr Biggar being pushed and threatened by a thuggish looking character twice his size. I had come across this individual before, a nasty piece of work called Mac. Before we had time to react Boom appeared out of nowhere, rushed up to Mac and gave him a violent shove that sent him staggering backwards. This was followed by a good deal of shouting from both sides and though Mac continued to stand his ground I could see he was reluctant to take things any further. His girlfriend, who had been trying to restrain him all the while, finally succeeded and the situation was diffused. I found out later that there had been an accidental collision on the dance floor and Mac had used this as an excuse to start throwing his weight around. Boom’s invitation for him to ‘try picking on someone his own size’ had not been taken up. When I recalled the look of cold fury on Boom’s face I think Mac had made a wise choice.

 

Although the whole thing was over as quickly as it had started, I was quite moved by the way Boom had, without any hesitation, gone to the aid of a friend. He was no shrinking violet, true, but I doubt many people would have fancied taking on a hard case like Mac. And being the worlds biggest coward myself, I could feel nothing but admiration. 

 

The atmosphere of the party seemed to have changed somehow, so I decided to head for home. Matt agreed: ‘Might as well join you. I can’t find that damned can anywhere.’

 

Just as we were leaving a group of would-be gatecrashers turned up and started arguing with the people at the door, trying to gain admittance. They were not in clerical attire and did not even appear to be students. Disapproval was written all over Matt’s face. ‘Nonconformists!’ he muttered with genuine distaste.

 

A week later Matt and I went to Boom’s ‘ecumenical get together,’ and though I cannot say we did much to improve the overall level of propriety, we did have a good time. I must have made a favourable impression on Boom, because that night he invited me to one of his forthcoming ‘expeditions’. The plan was for a whole group of us to descend on a tiny village somewhere out on Exmoor and drink the only pub in the place dry. That glorious weekend has to rank as one of the highlights of my time at Exeter. Certainly some of the things we got up to guaranteed everyone concerned a place in the fleeting annals of Exeter student folklore. It also confirmed my position as one of Boom’s ‘Merry Men’.

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