Diary of a Fresher: 'At my university "marriage" is just part of taking care of students'

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The Independent Online

Officially, "college marriage" is just another part of my university's pastoral system. Every fresher is assigned one or more "siblings" and two "parents" from the year above – one studying arts and one studying science. Your parents greet you when you arrive on your first day. They're the ones who show you how to use the library, and how to avoid locking yourself out of your room wearing only a towel. I'm not sure if it's an official part of university procedure, but it's such an institution it might as well be.

In preparation for becoming parents to next year's freshers, people in my year suddenly started getting "engaged" to each other about halfway through the first term. For a few weeks at least, the name of your fiancée did a lot to define your social standing, and the possibility of ending up a lonely bachelor was a genuine worry.

Naturally, the "marriage" is entirely platonic. As far as my "wife" and I are concerned, sex is the last activity we'd think of taking part in – with each other, at least. "Incest" of all kinds (including husband/wife) has been known, but is deeply frowned upon. My first fiancée jilted me for her now partner when she realised she wasn't allowed to "marry" another arts student.

This also turned out to be something of a problem for me – as most of my friends then were, a) art students and, b) male. I eventually managed to find a lovely lesbian-leaning-bisexual who was still "single", but for a while it was touch and go. Like most social occasions here, marriage is celebrated with a special "formal hall" – a bi-weekly three course dinner we can attend in preference to our normal cafeteria experience.

The objective of any "formal" – marriage or otherwise – is to get completely drunk. Facilitating this is a theoretically forbidden practice known as "pennying".

Its rules are complex, and vary from place to place, but the principle is that if someone manages to drop a penny in your wine glass while you're not touching it, you have to down the glass. A 5p piece dropped surreptitiously into someone's desert before they've stuck their fork in forces them to eat it without cutlery or hands.

While amusing, this is not advisable under all circumstances – so legend has it, a couple of students got expelled once for pennying a certain eminent-yet-paraplegic academic's crème brûlée.

Marriage formal is extra special - there’s a seating plan, there’s a rose in every other place setting, and we get given a colour photocopied marriage certificate as we enter. Some of the girls are wearing white.

About half way through, I generously offer my now wife an assortment of my finest pennies.

"David," she says, "I want to have sex with you in every way except that way."

We really do make a lovely couple.

While distracted by the profundity of this, my best friend Frank drops a penny, bent in two so it will fit, into my wine bottle.

This is called "engineer pennying" and means I have to down the bottle. I sigh, tell Frank he’s a twat, then fulfil my social duty. From this point on, my last night of freedom, and my first as a married man, became a bit of a blur.

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