I have seen the future, and it scares me

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The Independent Culture
March already. The Lenten month. Lencten monath, the Saxons called it: the month when you began to notice the days lengthening. Sensitive souls might notice their own days shortening in comparison. How witty Nature is, and how sociable; you're never alone with a lifespan. Listen to them chattering: Mr Stroke in the hallway, Mr Infarct on the stairs. Time to give up cigarettes, time to give up wine; time, in particular, to give up pretty young things who sit on your knee in nightclubs and say: "I like older men; they're more cuddly."

Doesn't bother me, though. No: didn't bother me, not once I had seen through all that God business, but that was before I got the invitation to my own funeral. That wasn't how it put it, but it amounted to the same thing. The Master and Fellows requested the honour of my company at dinner. Accommodation would be available in College for those who wanted it. Old Members who would like to occupy their old rooms only had to say the word and every effort would be made.

What a nice idea. G2 New Court. It would be nice to see it again: the broken-winded old sofa, the faded curtains, the gas-fire wheezing and fluttering in the wind which whipped straight down the chimney from the Urals, via Trump-ington Street. My rented baby grand piano in one corner, my life-size cut-out of Mrs Andy Capp in the other, Gurrelieder or Eno on the stereo, musk-scented joss-sticks burning, toast toasting, people nattering away over their Cointreau and coffee: my ex-wife, the psychiatrist, the rich ex-Cabinet-minister, the dead chap, the mad chap, the famous comedian, the lady novelist with recondite sexual tastes ... but they weren't any of those things then. We weren't dead or mad or rich or ex- or perverted, except perhaps in embryo. We were just ... young, although we didn't think of ourselves as that either. We thought of ourselves as ... us. That's all. There we were; and the scent of coffee and Cointreau and gas-fire and tobacco and joss-stick in winter or the New Court wallflowers in summer was the scent of hope and possibility.

I had angled to get those rooms, and was so delighted that I came up early that year, even though I had had to do a Long Vacation term on account of having failed Anatomy Part One (though not as dramatically as the professor of traumatic medicine, who was ahead of me in the viva queue. "What do you think this is, Mister B*****?" "It strikes me as ... well, a bone, sir." "Very good. Send Mr Bywater in on your way out, will you?"). I had expected to have the College almost to myself, apart from a handful of antique Fellows who lived in and never went anywhere. I was looking forward to basking in the luxury of autumnal Cambridge melancholy: the mists, the vast grey fenland skies, the pervasive, soothing damp.

But I was thwarted. A couple of days after I arrived, the College was subject to a terrible Pleistocene invasion. Hunched, withered and cackling gargoyles surged through the gates from lunchtime to sunset, calling out to each other in cracked hoarse voices, laughing foolishly, insinuating themselves on to the staircases and into the rooms. They doddered hopelessly back and forth as though trying to assemble a herd; by six o'clock they had all got themselves up in black tie, had - drawn by God knows what immemorial instinct - shuffled round to the Buttery in Old Court and were filling themselves with beer, laughing geriatrically.

I went in search of Mr Jaggard, the head porter, and demanded to know what was going on. "MacCurdy, sir." "What?" I said. Mr Jaggard bristled as only an ex-Regimental Colour Sergeant- Major can bristle. "I was just saying to Frank here," he hissed, "that the only trouble with you, Michael, is, you're a c***." I waited calmly; Mr Jaggard's use of my Christian name was a token of high esteem which meant far more to me than the starred First I was later not to get. "Mac-Curdy, sir. He was a Fellow. Passed away. Left an endowment for an annual dinner for Old Mem-bers. This lot, it's their turn. Twenty-five years since they came up. You wouldn't think it to look at them now, but..." and he began to tell me libellous stories about them in the days of their youth.

I was unconvinced. These old fools? These flops and last-chancers, grey and mortgaged, or paunchy and bombastic? It could not be. They had never drunk at the Eagle, never climbed in via the battlements at midnight, never ridden their bicycle stark naked around New Court, never hidden a girl under their bed while the bedmaker prowled around, never drunk themselves so drunk that they almost came out the other side, sober, never ... never been other than they were.

They poured out of Hall after their dinner, blotto, and spent half the night laughing and talking and banging on doors and going from room to room and trying to pretend that they had once been young. It was not pretty.

This disagreeable picture came to mind, all its details in an instant, as I stood by the breakfast table looking at my invitation. Above the bit where the Master and Fellows requested the honour of, there was the Corpus Christi shield, and above that it said Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and between that and the shield it said MacCurdy Dinner, 1997.

MacCurdy Dinner. 1997. It was like the screech of brakes on a wet road, like a doctor saying, "You'd better sit down," like a bailiff at the doorbell or a spanner in the works. Suddenly I realised that, should I accept the invitation, I would, on the 27th of September this year, become ... one of them, one of the Undead. What a terrible fate; what a terrible Lenten penance to face the awful truth. But there must be a way out. Artificial suntan and tight jeans? Diet, exercise, contact lenses and a visit to the tailor for something immaculately cut in bottle-green velvet? Drugs, shades and a crop-headed grrrl in big boots?

No. Nothing will work. Even if it fools the others, there'll still be me, watching myself from 25 years ago, thinking: poor old sod, trying to pretend that he was once ... one of us. !

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