I saw Harry Meredith on the telly. He was being interviewed as ‘the expert’ on an industrial accident. I hadn’t seen him for twenty years. He was wearing a suit, but otherwise unchanged. On the small side, slim and trim. Short, curly black hair. Round bespectacled face.
The interviewer was full of indignation, saying Harry was here to explain ‘how could something like this be allowed to happen.’ Harry’s answers were calm and sober. He began by expressing sympathy for the injured, and for the relatives of the dead.
In the sixties, Harry lived in the room next to mine in a tower block of student rooms. He was a good neighbour, though he had a tendency to come in late and drunk. He didn’t do it often – couldn’t afford to – and he was never noisy when drunk, so I didn’t mind.
He was reading physics, like me, but he was an experimenter, not a theoretician.
He spent his holidays selling ice-dreams on the sea-front of a dull, sleepy resort in Dorset. It didn’t pay well, but he had peace and quiet, and time to read. He said it was a sticky job, and he grew to hate the smell of ice-cream, but it gave him time to think. He thought a lot about Julie Christie.
Whenever our communal phone rang – one phone between ten students – he would rush to it, pushing others aside, shouting: ‘It’s for me. It’s Julie Christie. She’s ringing me at last …’
But it never was. And each time he would trudge away from the phone with an air of deep dejection. He believed it would be her, one day. His ardour grew with each disappointment.
‘You wait,’ he’d say, ‘it will be her, next time.’
Once, rather harshly I said ‘with your luck you’ll be out.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but when she rings, or maybe even comes to the porter’s desk, asking “Is Handsome Harry at home?” you must find a way to keep her here until I get back from the lab.’
I said I would do my best.
In his lab he had a tame thunderstorm. It was in a room which was almost a perfect cube: three metres wide, three metres long, three metres high. The air could be pumped out to simulate height above sea level. The room could be cooled or heated at will. He had a big metal spike on the ceiling, and a metal plate on the floor, so that he could make bolts of lightning. He could make rain or hail or snow. To make up-draughts and wind-shears there were fans. He was a regular weather-god, in a small way.
He was desperate for Julie Christie to come so he could show her his thunderstorm. He was sure she would be impressed.
For a while he worked with a Malaysian student called Miss Ng. When she wrote up her thesis she acknowledged his help fulsomely. She mentioned Harry Meredith six times in that thesis; each time spelled a different way. Never once right.
She was, he said ‘not as good as Julie Christie, but still a possibility.’ She went back to Kuala Lumpur, where there are lots of thunderstorms, but no tame ones.
He always wore a heavy greatcoat, in RAF grey. It was far too long for him and only just cleared the ground. One Rag Week he made a big bomb by painting a plastic football black. He glued a small home-made firework to the football so that it looked like a fuse. It smoked and smouldered as he carried it around the Arndale Centre. With his greatcoat, and a large wide-brimmed black hat, he looked like a cartoon anarchist.
He told the policeman he was tired of life, because Julie Christie had dumped him. The policeman advised him to stop smoking and find a nice local girl.
I left the tower block to get married, but was still a student. Harry left the tower and went to live in a big old stone house in Salford. He rented it with four other students. He made them keep one room free for Julie Christie.
He visited us often. He said the standard of our catering was better than anything he could manage on his own.
I visited Harry and his room was remarkably clean. He had acquired a huge, ruined, pre-war motorbike, and was renovating it. The parts had all been scrupulously cleaned and were laid out on sheets of newspaper all over his room. It was very systematic, like an exploded diagram of a motorbike engine. It spread into Julie Christie’s room too.
It was good to see him again, even if it was only on the telly.
I wonder if he did get together with Julie Christie?