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When I met her, Beatrix Cecilia Montague was somewhere between seventy'five and eighty'five years old. She was born in colonial India and attended a posh girls' finishing school in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Her hobbies included bridge, golf, and tennis—her mother was the all'India women's tennis champion. She made sure she never missed an episode of EastEnders, Neighbours, or Coronation Street, owned a beige fifteen'year'old Ford Fiesta and a cockatoo named Dippy. She smoked a pack and a half of Lambert and Butler cigarettes per day, washed and reused the half dozen pieces of cling wrap she owned, and seldom arose before eleven. She delivered a right'wing newsletter throughout the neighborhood regardless of inclement weather. Her hair was salt white and pepper gray save for a pompadour, stained the color of egg yolk from cigarette smoke. Her entire wardrobe was polyester and sported all sorts of unclassifiable stains. On any given day she could smell of faintly spicy sweat, pet stores, or musty cupboards. She didn't flinch when using racist, empirical terms like "golliwog" and "pickaninny." Beatrix Cecilia Montague was my college roommate.
Mrs. Montague—I never once addressed her as anything else in three years of living with her, so I won't here either—was above all else a woman of principle. She wasn't in the business of taking advantage of anybody and was vigilant in ensuring that she wasn't being taken advantage of herself. This is what I knew about Mrs. Montague prior to meeting her: in her inconveniently located ground'floor flat in leafy Hanwell, W7, she had a spare roomthat she rented to students for twenty'five pounds per week. She had one pet, a cockatoo, she was a smoker, and she would not be providing meals.
"Twenty'five quid?" said Sandra, my mum's best and brassiest friend, when I told her about my bargain over a meal from Mandarin Court, an establishment known locally as "the chinky." "Blimey, that's cheap, innit? A cockatoo? Are you sure it doesn't say she's looking for a cock or two?"
Getting a cheap place with no lease was of the utmost importance to me. Here's why: I was not exactly college material. A precocious five'year'old, I had peaked early intellectually. Since then I'd become bone idle and had developed a socially debilitating love of heavy metal and had a D+ average. Undeterred, my dad threatened severe economic sanctions unless I at least tried to get into a school.
In the United Kingdom, where until recently education was entirely paid for by the taxpayer, all university places are provisional until the publication of A'level results in the second week of August. A'levels are the equivalent of SATs. Let's suppose your first choice of school was Oxford but you didn't get the grades required there. You would have to opt for another one of the schools you were provisionally accepted to who would admit you based on your A'level results. Schools are required to keep these provisional places open until the results are published. This means that after publication a lot of university places suddenly become available and there is a mad scramble to fill them. (On the day the results are published, broadsheet newspapers include supplements made up purely of ads from different schools to entice those still without a place to secure one over the phone!) Places at better schools are snapped up instantly by the most qualified, but the trickle'down effect means that a lot of the shittier universities are practically dragging 'people in off the street regardless of their academic aptitude. That's how I got in.
Upon getting a place at Thames Valley University my plan was to leave Thames Valley University. I felt by the age of eighteen there was barely any room left in my brain to learn any new stuff—even "Media Studies"—but I also knew that my attending university, even for a semester, would make my father a happy man. Nobody in our family had gone to college and it was my father's ambition that I should be the first to go, in spite of me expressing absolutely no interest in furthering my education or even having the grades to get into anything but the most piss'poor of institutions. In our town, going to university was far from expected from a child, and I felt it unfair that I was being randomly singled out to attend. In my graduating class, I would say less than one in twenty kids went on to university, or "uni," as it's known.
All I really wanted to do was play in what I now realize was a dreadful rock band. My plan was a tightrope act: I had to teach my parents a lesson about not overestimating their children, but I knew that if I made that lesson an expensive one, I'd never be able to forget it. That's why when I saw Mrs. Montague's ad in TVU's Accommodations Office, I knew I had found the perfect housemate. TVU had no student housing but instead provided listings of whole houses to rent with other students or rooms to rent within a family home or private residence. In either situation, it was unheard of to pay less than fifty quid a week.
Before my mother and I took a train to London to meet her and see the available bargain room, I hoped that Mrs. Montague was a sexy divorcée, or better yet, an independently wealthy widow in her early forties, yearning for the company of an eager house boy as per the ad's insinuation. The way I saw it, what a sultry Mrs. Montague could teach me in the bedroom would ultimately have a more practical application than anything I'd glean from a patchily attended semester of Media Studies classes at Britain's worst university. The school's only real claim to fame is that it used to be Ealing College of Art and was attended by rock heroes like Queen's Freddie Mercury, The Who's Pete Townsend, and Ron Wood from the Rolling Stones. With such a rock'and'roll precedent, I idly hoped that, if nothing else, a bit of uni might bolster my chances of rock stardom.Working Stiff. Copyright © by Grant Stoddard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.