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The night of the hamster

The picture in question (I'm bottom right)
For my recent appearance on the University Challenge Christmas Special I was asked to provide a picture of myself while at Lancaster University, which has caused some amusement to those who saw the show (they seem surprised by the hair). What wasn't obvious is that this was actually a group photograph of those of us who shared a kitchen in Bowland College, pictured after a birthday celebration.

Looking at it brought back remarkable memories of an excellent year - but also of one of the spookiest moments of my life.

I was in bed, determined to finish a book I was reading that night. (Not because it was a great book, but because I just wanted to get it over with. It might have been Inferno by Niven and Pournelle, but it might not.) It was about 3 am. (What can I say? I was a student. Students do crazy things.) As I read, out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement in my room.

I sat up abruptly. The only illumination was a dim reading light over my head. But I could see nothing out of place. Two pages later, I glimpsed it again. Something white, moving rapidly across the floor. A small, white ball. Could it be a ball lightning? It had gone again. I looked back at the book, but kept a side-view onto the floor. And then it appeared in all its glory. A fluffy white hamster. I had no idea how it got into my room, but I had no intention of letting it stay.

Bearing in mind that it was 3am, it seemed reasonable to try to catch it by putting a carrier bag on the floor with a piece of cheese in it. Remarkably, this also seemed reasonable to the hamster, who casually entered the bag and I scooped it up. So far, so good. But I knew no one with a hamster.

So I went into the kitchen portrayed above, clutching my carrier bag. By now it was about 3.15 am, but there were a couple of people around. (We were students, crazy things, etc. etc.) Remarkably someone knew that my next door neighbour but one, who I didn't know as he used another kitchen, had a hamster. I knocked on his door and reacquainted him with his pet. While not ecstatic at being woken up, he seemed quite pleased to get it back.

Back to my room. I shut my door behind me, grabbed my book, slid into bed, looked down... and there on the floor was the hamster. Again. I checked that door. There was no more than a half inch clearance, while the hamster looked four times that height, but somehow it had followed me back.

This time it let me pick it up by hand. Finally the hamster was returned and placed firmly in its cage. I was worn out. There was no hope of finishing the book. But there was one more memory attached to Bowland College and that (rather tatty) kitchen.

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