On lateness and being late
Despite my very best intentions, I still nearly managed to be on time for my first day back at university after a gap of । . . Well, it’s nearly 33 years since I walked out of my final finals exam, promising myself and everyone else in the student union bar: never again.
It was a promise I kept। In all those years, I’ve only sat two exams. Or, rather, sat and resat the same exam — my driving test failed first time, passed second. And that was 27 years ago: the very last driving test of the very last day of 1980, in the yellow, drizzly, late-afternoon, mid-winter gloom of Hendon. Since then, nothing. I even avoided eye tests till a couple of years ago, having convinced myself that it wasn’t that I needed reading glasses, just that the world was getting darker.
I’d been taking exams since I was eight, twice a year at least। I was good at them, too, mostly. It was just this: enough was enough. A room with rows of desks. The smell of blue-black ink and English teachers’ leather-elbowed jackets. High summer sun shafting seductively through stained-glass windows. The breath-constricting sense of anticipation as you opened the paper. Being reminded: not to talk, to answer all the questions, to re-read your answers, to ask permission to go to the toilet. The 15-minute warning. The 5-minute warning. The one-minute warning. The end: stop writing, put down your pen, now.
Enough। I’d had enough of it all, even the good bits — high marks, obviously, but also the wonderful sense of flow when you’re writing easily and clearly about something you know about and doing it against a ticking clock. Enough, though, was enough. (I found a substitute for the flow and writing against the clock thing. I became a journalist. An improvement on the original: same thing, more or less, only you got paid for it.)
Yet, here, now — half a lifetime and three children later — I’m back at university, having applied for, interviewed for, been accepted for, paid for and enrolled on a masters course at University College, London — an MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies. My first degree was in psychology and, essentially, I’m picking up pretty much where I left off, all those years ago, in the bar.
I always intended to be late for my first day back at university। I’ve always been late on my first day for anything. It’s a deliberate policy. It’s important to be late on your first day. I learned that long ago, from Terry Wogan, I think. Arrive early on your first day and it’ll be expected of you ever after. Arrive late and they’ll always be appreciative of your punctuality, never take it for granted. At least that’s the theory. I’ve never analysed the data.
I worked hard at being late। I chatted to a fellow dog-walker in the park. I bumped into a very old acquaintance and made sure we progressed well beyond the ritual exchange of pleasantries. I had a proper breakfast, even though I knew time was getting tight. I strolled to the tube station, only to discover I had plenty of time. Then, to my blissful surprise, there were no trains running on the Charing Cross branch. I’d have to take a Bank train to Euston and walk from there. I did. I got to the right building just on time. I resigned myself to promptness.
As I’d been told to, I checked in at the desk। Someone rushed through next to me, a flurry of black and determination. The man at the desk told me to take the first lift to the fifth floor, then walk across the building, past the second lift. It didn’t sound right but I did as I was told. It wasn’t right. The fifth floor entrance was security-locked against me. As was the sixth, the seventh, the fourth etc etc, all the way down to the first, where someone offered to help me out, take me to the right place. ‘I’ve always wondered where the psychoanalysis unit was,’ he said. The spirit of enquiry.
I was fifteen minutes late. The flurry of black and determination was there already, attentive and inquisitive five seats to my left. Later, we talked. ‘Being late is a big thing in psychoanalysis, isn’t it,’ I was told. I should have replied: are we talking 15 minutes or 33 years? But, of course, but didn’t.