Old Tiverton Road, Exeter, 2006, and I am washing up in the kitchen of the student house I share with seven friends. To my right, a colony of slugs dozes unnoticed in the cutlery drawer. Behind, the cabinetry and worktops look like they haven’t seen a decorator’s hand in our lifetimes. The floor, begrimed with dirt, wants mopping. That knocking sound you can hear is the water pipes, clanking away like a furious mechanical heart.
The way of the student is, more often than not, a messy one. But so unusually foul were these students that even the mice had moved out (we never saw a single one; doubtless the slugs scared them off). The kitchen, being in the basement, was splendidly cold and cheerless, untroubled by the sun even in the heights of summer. Its every unwiped surface was a bacteriological weapon, lethal to the touch.
Faced with these adverse living conditions, only two species can survive. Students and slugs. And we came to realise that, compared to our squelchier cousins, we were maladapted to life underground. Every evening, around 11pm, we would resign ourselves to the coming of night and their slithering ascendance. In the morning they’d be gone, but evidence of mollusc merrymaking was everywhere, from the hob to the dining table to the crockery we’d been remiss enough to leave on the drying rack. It was the slugs’ world; we were just living in it.
The better news: the lounge was next door, and was officially slug-free. The worse news: it was dark, dank and we once found a snail living on one of the walls. If ever a shaft of light penetrated the gloom, there was a serious danger its ‘fittings’ might tremble into dust. The carpet, an inky brown, possessed the pizzazz of a converted coal bunker, and the furniture – two drooping sofas and a scattering of mean cushions – was crying out for a fly-tipping. It was a room fit only for waiting out the apocalypse, or watching Neighbours. Or both.
But in this house of delights, surprises and oddities, there was nothing so delightful, surprising or odd as its tendency to… wriggle about. I was lucky, so I thought, to have a room on the second floor, well away from the slug-ridden kitchen and the snail-troubled lounge. But when the blow fell, it was from an unexpected quarter. Closing my door of an evening, I suddenly found that it… wouldn’t. On closer inspection, it seemed the door frame, tilted from the vertical, had rejected geometrical order. It was warped. I was surprised, to say the least of it. Raising the issue with the landlady the next day, I received the following response.
‘The house and its walls are always on the move,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing for it but to wait awhile. Before long, it and they will move back.’
She wasn’t wrong. Only seven months of compromised privacy later, the house duly retrod its tracks, and the door frame re-aligned itself. It was, once more, possible to shut it. Just as well I hadn’t been inside when it first happened, or I’d have spent the better part of my 21st year bunkered in my room. Under house arrest, in an unusually literal sense.
But when one door shuts, another one opens. Not long afterwards, I graduated and said farewell to that peculiar old house on Old Tiverton Road, forever. But sometimes, just sometimes, when the sun’s out and the breeze whispers warmly across my neck, I miss its airless, lightless, hopeless kitchen. I miss its clanking water pipes. And I miss my old enemy, the slugs, who we did eventually notice dozing in the cutlery drawer. But that’s another story.