Tuesday 12 July 2016

Stormboy, opening

Out above the backend of the Uplands, one street up the hill from Ffynone school, there's a lane, down which hardly anyone goes these days. At its end, behind a run-down rusty fence and a row of overgrown trees is a large abandoned building, with five wings, built in a mid-Victorian Gothic style.

It used to be a college of the University of Wales.

Some nights, it still is.

At certain times during the year, on varying nights in varying months, but always when the moon is clear in the sky half-full, the empty building develops a covering of frost. Through long-deserted office windows, august academics can be seen shuffling papers, reading books, writing treatises.

It is July. It's been a brutal month, a hundred degrees or more every day this week, but around the college, it is always raining. Walking up the path, stepping inside, I nearly slip on the rain-slick algae-covered stones.

The corridor is lit with a naked electric lightbulb. I can hear a voice coming from the third door on the right.

Peeking round the door, I see a class full of students, taking notes from a lecture, given by a tall, thin man with bottle-bottom glasses pushed right up to the top of his nose.

There are other rooms: more lectures, offices in which elderly men and women sit alone at desks surrounded by notes and dusty quartos.

Everything is covered with rain, or algae or mould ¨C including the people. No one seems cold.

The last room on the corridor is a departmental office. The cobweb-draped woman behind the desk smiles curtly, nods, hands me a schedule of courses and lectures.

I flip through the phone-book sized catalogue, as I wander through the winding, infinite corridors of the building, squinting at miniscule text.

A random sample from the lectures and seminar list looks, in part, something like this:
They study the minutiae of the lives of everyday people. Things that an average academic couldn't know. Every person is important, worthy of study; every dream, every whim, every conversation is worth thinking about, every life's story is material for any number of essays and theses.
I walk randomly through the department's corridors for an hour or more, not really feeling the cold, poring through the list ¨C arranged in the order the lectures are given, rather than on their subjects, somewhat frustratingly. After a while, I become aware that I've been walking all this time. I look up from the course catalogue.

I'm next to a door, covered in chipped blue paint. Screwed on at eye level is a sign: Thesis Store.

My curiosity gets the better of me. No one's around, and the door is unlocked.

I step inside, leaving a little cloud of breath behind me.

So. The thesis store is a massive room, far too big for the building. Lit dimly by naked yellow lightbulbs, library stacks stretch off for what seems like miles in every direction, receding into shadow before anything like a far wall is reached.

I shrug –  nothing ventured – and start on the stack immediately in front of me, brushing past a spider's web, which flickers in the low light, strewn with tiny crystalline drops.

My search is complicated by the cataloguing system – the theses are alphabetised by author. Damn. Still. The possibility of hitting on what I want to know, although minute, is still there and so I decide to carry on anyway.

One thesis catches my eye:

The Circumstances Surrounding the Accidental Death of Mark Dingle and its Effects on the Unity of His Family. J. Desult, PhD, 1999.

I knew a kid called Mark Dingle at school. I flip through, looking for facts. Yes, it was the same one. He'd been hit by a car the day before his university graduation, up in Leeds. I didn't know he was dead. I didn't even know he had gone to University in Leeds.

I started around "D", and after two hours of scouring the stacks, I am still on "D". My watch says it's about 3am now. I'm just about ready to give up when I see another one that rings a bell.

Stormboy. A.P. Doyer, PhD. 2001.

This one I take out and open.

My fingers are now so numb with the cold, I can barely turn the flyleaf.

Inside is the full title: Stormboy: The Success and Failure of the Herons' Debut Single and the Subsequent Breakup of the Band. A. P. Doyer, PhD 2001.

Not exactly what I was looking for, but things I want to know about. I give up on my other search.

No one else will be reading this particular essay any time soon, so I decided to borrow it. I tuck it under my arm and stroll nonchalantly out of the thesis store, and then find my way out of the college and into the early morning rain.