Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A guest at my table - Mathew and Andy

The year is 1997 and I am travelling to York University to meet a group of people I have never seen before and who will, by the end of the next week, have become like close family if only for a short, intense time. This is the Open University Summer School programme. All of us have spent the entire year individually deep in assignments, books and late night television programmes (although most were starting to appear on video, thankfully) and now we are here all together. I think I have travelled a long way, coming up from Cornwall, until I meet the others. I find myself in a minority, suddenly, as people fly in in drips and drabs from all corners of the earth.

It is an essential requirement of the courses that people attend Summer School, and every help is made available for those with tiny babies, those who have to bring whole families with them, the old, the disabled, service men and women stationed on the other side of the world. There are no exceptions.

I hadn't realised when I started this History degree that it would be so dominated by the army. The services pay/or help pay for servicemen stationed overseas to be able to study for a degree, and many of them fit it in with night work or long periods of waiting. In my group are two young men roughly the same age as me; Mathew is a young officer in his early thirties working undercover for the MOD in Eastern Europe. Andy is part of a Bomb disposal squad in Northern Ireland. It is a difficult time for both of them. Over in Ireland, the Real IRA are waging a campaign against the British security forces, culminating in the Omagh bombing which would occur the year after this. Over in Albania, the United Nations Security Council had, in March, authorised a force of 7,000 to direct relief and restore order to Albania, to try and prevent the unrest from spreading outside the country. Both men have young families back home, and young wives who have mental health problems. You can perhaps pick and train men to be mentally strong in these situations but you can't pick their families. It is an added burden they both share. It is not something I have ever thought about before.

Mathew has dark wavy hair and glasses and unusually pale skin. He is calm and controlled and never seems to become particularly animated by any of the discussions. He is thoughtful and incisive and brings a deeper interpretation to our joint projects. It is interesting to see how different minds work in the same situation. Other people make you look at things in a different way, if they are able to communicate their thoughts properly. Andy shows me a different side. He isn't as intellectual as Mathew but his take on things is totally unique. He breaks things down into a step-by-step approach. Every step provides a choice, but each of these choices lead to a pre-determined step. He is applying his skills as a bomb disposal expert to the deconstruction of an assignment question. He is slightly younger - perhaps in his late twenties still- with a regulation crew cut and square jaw. He is charismatic and witty yet never out of control of the situation. He is an interesting mix, and lives on the hyped-up adrenalin that his job gives him; yet in a controlled and confined sort of way. He isn't a man to shout.

The week plays out in a heightened state for all of us. These events are notable for this I think. Each night we find we are still talking at four or five in the morning, no one wanting to give in to the dull ache of sleep. It is the finite time limit that makes this all the more imperative. And the bug is catching. By the end of the week even the older members who have taken themselves off to bed on the first couple of nights are hanging out in the halls with the dwindling supplies of alcohol and crisps, their wrinkles pinned back and their eyes glistening with fire.

My guests have arrived at the correct time for our dinner of lamb cutlets. They are still in their late twenties and early thirties, and, although I want to find out how the intervening years have left their mark, they are unable to tell me what they cannot know. The world is a different place today. Their conflicts are just another page in the history books; another question on a University exam paper. These young men are helping to write that history, even as they examine the questions from another time. Perhaps all wars and conflicts throw up the same universal questions and issues, and, in answering those, they are seeking to answer their own. Their worlds are very far apart and yet the questions are the same.

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