Intro picture of the iconic UEA ziggurats stolen from Over The Hills without any permission whatsoever.
I am in Norwich in the Co-Op round the back of the Tescos near Fiveways, a pub which I will never enter. Dave works at the Co-Op. I do not know who Dave is – I have seen his name badge, so I know what he’s called – but he smiles at me like he knows me so often I do not go into Co-Op for fear he will be there and I might have to say something.
It is Tuesday. I am going to play Dungeons and Dragons with new friend Chris, and unlike nowadays we do not go to the pub after because we finish late and the pub is shut and I don’t often have the cash for a beer on me. I keep my money in an envelope in my wardrobe. I do not have a bank account. Every month my parents send me some money and I take it out ten pounds at a time. (I am eternally thankful for this but not very good at saying it to them in our emails or our weekly phonecalls and I can’t apologise for that even now)
I am buying three white batons and a packet of curiously square ham and cheese so bland it could qualify as packing foam. I have a jar of sandwich spread at home which makes sandwiches taste magic. I am looking forward to the sandwiches I am going to eat for dinner tonight whilst everyone talks about elves and picks at the styrofoam boxes of chips and beans they have brought from the Uni cafeteria.
The sky outside is grey and the buildings low and somewhere something smells of fried food and wet concrete. Cars perform a complex ballet in the 24-hour Tesco to slot into place and kids ride bikes with their socks rolled up over their shiny tracksuit legs.
I am scared. I am scared because this is a new world I have been absent from for so long. I grew up abroad. I have not lived in England for more than six years. I am scared because I will not know what to say. I am scared of cars, and crossing the road, thanks to Dad’s constant insistence that all drivers are going to kill me. I remember one time a car ran a red light and hit the tip of his umbrella and we both got scared, but that was eleven years ago.
I wear a knee-length green coat that I got from a lawn sale in Iowa for six dollars. It used to belong to a helicopter pilot, my girlfriend’s dad assured me – ex-military himself, showed me pictures of a thinner version of himself with hair sat in the mud in Vietnam – and it’s ill-fitting but it’s long and it’s kind of alt and it’s the sort of coat that I wholeheartedly believe I should be wearing because I am a student now and students are weird.
(Students are not weird. Students wear polo shirts and shorts with stripes down the leg and drink Smirnoff Ice and listen to dance music and spend their time learning about Sports Science and are actually fairly normal members of society. I was weird.)
For a month or two, I pair the coat with a fedora because I thought that was a good idea. Pictures still exist, shamefully.
I wear bright red and white trainers which will see me throughout Uni and all the way up until my second week of full-time work where they will collapse in a wet heap during a rainstorm on my way to the office and I will go out during my lunchbreak and buy new shiny shoes and throw these wet ones in a bin on St Benedict’s street and not realise what a meaningful thing it was to do until it is seven years later and I am sat in an upstairs flat in London wondering what happened to all the bits of my life up until now.
I am trying to grow a beard – students have beards, after all, and look different from who they were before in every way. It is going well, considering. I have recently read a guide on beard care on my already-dented but fairly new laptop in the corner of my tiny room opposite my narrow bed with a thin mattress and the scattered evidence of last year’s tenant left in the slats underneath.
I walk back to my flat and put my food away in the kitchen and sit at my laptop until it is time to go out. I do not do that week’s reading. I never do that week’s reading, ever, until it is ten weeks after that week and exams are coming and I sit and read reams and reams of text that doesn’t go in and makes me feel uncomfortable and sad and even more scared than I was before.
It is November and the dark comes quick, sets the streetlights down the main road off just past five and breath steaming in the air. I walk past big green trees and overgrown grass and a gym full of people who’ve decided that they want to move more than they have to. The grass is wet and smushes under my feet, leaving licks of water over the red leather uppers of my shoes.
Anyway. It is 2005. I am going to play Dungeons and Dragons in the converted sports hall in the centre of campus.
I have a dwarf called Ulfgar Strakheim. He was ostensibly a Ranger though I got bored of being a Ranger so I put a couple of levels into Fighter but then spent all my time behaving like a Rogue. I wrote on his background section “Distrustful. Gruff. Loner” but ended up spending all my time hanging out with other characters who took advantage of me.
Ulfgar’s main trick was getting knocked unconscious while the other members of the party actually did things.
Ulfgar was an experiment. A byproduct of not knowing the rules or even the shape of the rules. Of not knowing how groups worked, or character optimisation, or of the reams and reams of text locked away in tight columns in stacks of books that covered the table every week.
Ulfgar wasn’t a character. Ulfgar was a series of mistakes that resulted in a personality, which I guess makes him more like a real person that anyone else I’ve played.