When I was at University in Sheffield I was at one point desperate to move out of my Hall of Residence, Ranmoor House, newly built for 600 students of both sexes, intangibly separated by corridors and staircases, and doubling as a conference centre in the holidays. It was luxurious, warm (central heating that worked, windows that opened, and cleaning ladies to change the sheets and hoover!) and very friendly. I loved it at first but then one by one my friends moved out – it was very expensive – £16 a week, I seem to remember and so it became a bit lonely. I didn’t want to move into a shared house (I don’t like sharing) and all the potential compromises frightened me, but I did want a place of my own.
And then I met Frank. He was very attractive and very unsuitable. He had a girlfriend who had just had a baby and was having to move out of her accommodation. Frank took me to visit her one evening and I fell in love with her room. A very dilapidated attic, with a tiny cooker and sink, and oh, so near the university. Pamela – I think, that’s her name, eventually moved out, and bravely carried on at the university. I hope she moved to somewhere better. Meanwhile I bided my time and then persuaded the landlady to rent me the room. £3 a week. Wow. I would have a lot of money left over for going abroad in the holidays. Those were the days. I had a grant, and once I had paid all my bills the world was my oyster.
When I moved in, the landlady’s friend, Bill, showed me round the house explaining all the rules and regulations. He also showed me the bathroom with pride. All pink plastic. But there was a bath. I was so excited. It looked very clean unlike the rest of the house. What he omitted to tell me, though, was that it wasn’t plumbed in. Somehow I forgave him that, and settled into making the attic more habitable. The other lodgers were very varied. There was Alice who was toothless and chewed on bacon rind and kept herself warm not by feeding the meter like me, but by going on the buses until well into the night. She was friendly enough, but I couldn’t understand a lot of what she said. After a few months she died, and there was a terrible palaver trying to find a next of kin. Mrs, the landlady, was determined then not to let the room out to anyone old again. Brilliant for me because after a while some of my friends moved in. all separate bedsits, so no need for sharing. I used to go to the Students’ Union down the road to have a bath, in the staff section, as it happened as it was never used by the staff, who had their own baths presumably.
Yet before my friends could move in there were a couple of unsavoury characters still there. There was George, recently out of prison, with his wife Rosie. George did not work but kept the household going with a bit of light theft and burglary. I found out the hard way when all my jewellery disappeared one day. Rosie also offered her services to the locals. (Did I mention that this was the red light district of Sheffield? My father actually offered me more money to move out.)
I quite liked them both but when my stuff went missing Bill immediately surmised it was them. Then he put a lock on my door. They left. A few weeks later I met them in the street. I asked for my stuff back. Sorry, said George, it’s gone. Gone where? I asked naively. He laughed – apologised, and then asked if he could have some clothes for Rosie. Obviously business hadn’t been too good for her, and winter was coming. So I went inside and found some.
But never mind. The last character to move out before the house was overtaken by more students was Patrick. Turned out he had murdered his wife some time in the past and was on probation on some sort of social experiment run by the Pickups. (John and Jill. social workers) I think you can look this up. I was on very good terms with Patrick – he was about twenty five, so quite a bit older than me, and very personable and interesting. My father once met him and enjoyed his company .But then something happened – I was going to say I couldn’t remember what, but I can- I actually met the Pickups who told me his story. I began to seriously lock my room then.
Meanwhile Mrs died quite suddenly and her daughter Bessie inherited the house and all its problems. She was lovely. The main change was that she let Bill move into the house itself. Until then he had been living in a caravan in the garden.
He was in his early eighties by then but very sprightly (he bought himself a motorbike the day after Mrs died) and friendly. He liked to come and socialise with the students as well as babysitting for some of the prostitutes in the street. It was a remarkably friendly area apart from the terrifyingly feral children who played in the street with their broken umbrellas. Oh, and apart from Peter Sutcliffe who lurked near by.
One night I was going to a party round the corner when I was mugged by two girls who took my coat, scarf,money and ring. It was quite a terrifying experience and after that I was quite nervous about going out. And this is where Bill stepped in, always offering to come and collect me etc etc. I don’t think I ever needed to call on his services but it was nice to know. (I got everything back, by the way, but not until after being taken in the same police car as the girls when they were eventually found wearing my stuff, to the police station. That was a bit awkward as we all had to make statements very close to each other)
So Bill became a friend. He had travelled a lot in his youth, he’d joined up under age to the army in the first world war and then did odd jobs round the world – I think he may have been a sailor – and he had acquired a lot of souvenirs from these travels. I lived in the house for about two years and every once in a while he would bring me something that he thought I might like. Boxes, handbags, and these two pictures from China. They have been hiding in a cupboard since we moved to this house in 1986, which is a pity as I have always really liked them. So I thought I would give them an airing and a sharing today. The first one is made of foil and the second from stamps on a silk background.
Bill was an experience – he gave me the surprise of my life when he hitched down to London for my 21st birthday party, in full evening dress. Unbeknownst to me he had been invited – as a joke I think- by some friends. He arrived at the venue where I was having a ball, ready to dazzle and dance. The oldest person there and certainly the best dressed! My grandmother was quite taken with him!