Written by: Samuel Woodford (Architecture and Environmental Design, 2011)
“Tragic really,” says Dr Rushton, Assistant Professor. “It’s almost always irreversible.”
I stare back over the coffee table, wondering how the morning’s dissertation meeting has gone so off topic. “Don’t they get a job eventually?” I ask.
“I’m sure they tell themselves they will, but they always end up starting another degree instead. That’s the real tragedy: the delusion.” She shakes her head.
"Can’t you tell them it’s pointless? Has no one thought to mention - ”
“Do you think I don’t? Well, of course I don’t these days, but I did at first. That’s the natural reaction of most people when they come here, when they notice. It’s the same everywhere, but you’d never realise unless you knew where to look. When to look, I should say.”
I shuffle the bundle of papers a little straighter on my lap and eye Dr Rushton carefully, but the assistant professor seems to have forgotten all about my dissertation. “What do you mean, ‘when to look’?”
There’s a far-away look on the woman’s face; her neat, thoughtful forehead creases. “You only ever see them at night normally,” she says. "It’s much rarer to spot them during the day. I suppose they must walk around just like everyone else, lost in the crowd. No one would even know they were here, I suppose.”
She stands, smoothes the front of her jumper and wanders over to the office window. “Come here. Look at them, down there.”
Obediently, I step around the desk and peer down beside her.
Trees form a dark lattice work outside the Trent Building, a few brown leaves still fluttering here and there.
They partially obscure a slope that runs down to the edge of the water, where some students are walking in circles and waving their arms in a way that suggests matters of great importance. At the top of the slope the access road leads away from the car park, its pavements crowded with people passing up and down, some wheeling bicycles, others shouldering rucksacks and bags.
“You see that girl?” says Rushton, pointing someone out. “How long do you guess she’s been here?”
I shrug, wondering where this strange conversation is going. “Err, couple of years?” I hadn’t realised this was going to be such an important topic today.
The assistant professor nods to herself. “BA, I should think. Probably year two. What about him over there? He’s got an MEng sort of look about him. Could be third year, maybe fourth. Probably got the BEng under his belt pretty fast and then jumped straight on into round two.”
I look at Dr Rushton, trying to hide my surprise. There isn’t really anything I can say though, and the assistant professor seems to be talking at least partly to herself. I consider whether to insert the subject of my dissertation into proceedings.
“Ever hear the name Milo Lendle?” asks Rushton, her nose almost touching the glass.
I shake my head.
“I met him once outside the Coates Building about half past eight one summer evening. Sunset, it was, with that kind of fresh feeling you get when a warm day starts to cool. Poor fellow. He had a jolly air about him, but I could see the pain in his eyes.” She paused and let out a sigh that misted on the window.
Ever hear the name Milo Lendle? He has twenty-two PhDs.
I snort with derision before I can stop myself, and Dr Rushton shoots me a scathing glance.
“You think that’s funny?”
“Come on, two PhDs would be hard to believe. No one’s got twenty-two!”
Rushton is quiet for a second, and I can see her thinking because she moves her jaw slightly when she’s thinking. “Corinne Hardy?”
“No, my name’s Felix,” I chortle, convinced the whole thing’s some kind of joke.
“She’s up in architecture. You’ll find her there in the studios every night, pale as a ghost. She’s working on a 1:4 scale model of an international airport. So far it’s taken her more than thirty years.”
I can’t hide my mirth any longer and make no effort to suppress the laughter. “You’ve got to be kidding! I’ve been up there and there’s no airport model. Where would she even keep something like that?”
“She takes it home. It’s too big to carry, so she breaks it into pieces to fit in a cab. Every night she builds it up again, and when dawn comes she takes her work apart and calls a taxi. Every night. Thirty years.”
I wipe the tears from my eyes and look at Dr Rushton, but there isn’t a trace of humour in her expression.
“David Thesselwhite,” she goes on. “Mathamatics BSc. He’ll graduate from that course for the tenth time next summer and he’s already enrolled to begin again.”
She seems deadly serious as she goes back over to the sofa. My buoyant mood is rapidly leaving me. Maybe she actually believes what she’s saying. “But why?” I murmur, trailing after her with my bundle of papers. “Why would they keep going forever?”
Rushton leans back in the cushions, her gaze on the carpet. “I suppose they get used to it here, the people, the community. Maybe they just get hooked on being the best at something. Milo Lendle can produce a PhD thesis in under ten months now. That’s got to be some sort of record.”
She looks up at me. “And what about you, Felix? What do you want?”
I hold out my papers. “Can we just go over my dissertation?”
She shakes her head and the sad look creeps back into the corners of her mouth.
“Not anymore, Felix. I know it’s perfect. You’ve written something very similar every winter for the last fourteen years. It’s time for you to admit you’ve had too much of a good thing.”
My hands dither and drop as the reality of her words crashes over me. “But… but what will I do?”
“Anything you want.” She gives a slight shrug. “How about joining the alumni community?”