“Morse, you can’t hide in your room on moving-in day.” Alice Vexin leaned on the doorframe. Her fellow RA had his back to her, shifting dozens of books into a thirdhand Billy bookcase that looked halfway to collapsing.
“I’m not hiding. I’m organizing my books.”
“You’re supposed to be available if the new students need help.” Morse shuddered theatrically. “You knew what you were in for, signing up to be an RA. Why did you, anyway? You’re the last person I’d expect.”
“I couldn’t stomach working in the dining hall any longer. Sausages, laws, and dorm food.” Morse was a scholarship student, and part of the arrangement was that he would work an on-campus job. He’d applied for every library every year, but those spots were coveted and people only gave them up when they finished their studies. Morse had ended up with the kitchen job for two years running. He didn’t have to talk to people, and could study while he worked: he recorded lectures and notes, and listened to them on headphones while he washed dishes and cleaned up after the cooks.
RA jobs were plum assignments: room and board plus a small stipend. They were in a new building by Oxford standards— a postwar prefab block that had students from multiple colleges, and was coed on all three floors. Morse was responsible for the forty kids on the second floor, Alice for the first floor, and there was a grad student on the ground floor, Peter Jakes, who was also the senior RA for the building.
“Come on, Morse.” Alice and Morse had known each other since they both started college. Alice had been roommates with Susan Bryce-Morgan, and had had a crush on Morse that first year. It had quickly faded due to his crush on Susan, and his intractable awkwardness.
Susan had deigned to go out with him six months earlier, after she and Henry Fallon broke up, and they’d been dating ever since, mainly because Morse worshipped the ground she walked on and would do anything for her.
Morse put a last book atop the bookcase, which groaned softly, and followed Alice out into the chaotic hall, where they were nearly trampled by a tower of boxes topped with a bed-in-a-bag, which proved to be a boy trying to get all his worldly goods upstairs in one trip.
“Ronnie! Watch out!” A harried woman was following him with two suitcases.
“Which room is it again, Joanie?” A man with an armload of boxes, his salt-and-pepper fringe falling into his eyes, had just emerged from the stairwell.
“310, Dad!” He was followed by a dark-haired girl with big blue eyes, who was carrying a suitcase and an open box.
“I don’t see why you need all of us to help you move in,” grumbled a tall, thin teenaged boy with dark hair and eyes.
“You’re the one wanted to see my dorm, Sam.”
“And why do you need all this stuff?” Sam was hauling a bed-in-a-bag and a curtain rod.
“Her room needs to be cozy,” reproved a woman who looked like a middle-aged version of the girl. She was carrying curtains. Morse shook his head. He’d come to Oxford by himself his first year, with two suitcases. His bedding had been taken from his room at his father’s house in Stamford. His stepmother certainly hadn’t cared if his room was cozy.
He roamed the hallway, filled with the noise and chaos of forty students settling in and meeting roommates while their parents chatted. One girl had actually brought a 5x7 foot area rug and was trying to unroll it with her mother’s help. Morse shook his head, but went to assist.
310 was two doors down. Joan was busy unpacking and setting up her side of the room. Her father and brother were putting up the curtain rod and curtains, while her mother made up the bed. By the time Morse stuck his head into the room, it looked quite homey.
He found himself being surveyed by the girl’s father, whose sharp gaze seemed to read his soul. “I’m Morse. The Residence Advisor for this floor,” he explained nervously.
“Fred Thursday. Detective with Thames Valley— “
“Dad! Don’t tell everyone you’re a cop! It scares them off. No guy in sixth-form college would ask me out, for fear of you. I don’t want that happening here.”
“I— er— It’s not allowed. RAs dating residents, that is. And— I have a girlfriend.” Morse fled, nearly colliding with a blonde girl in the doorway.
Joan sighed. “See what I mean?”
“I thought pets were illegal.”
Joan’s eyes widened. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”
Shirley Trewlove, her new roommate, shrugged, watching the hermit crab trundle around the small aquarium sitting on Joan’s desk. “I don’t have a problem with him.”
Joan relaxed. “I couldn’t leave Doodle at home. Sam forgets about him, and he creeps Mum out.”
Shirley laughed. “How’d he get his name?”
Joan shrugged. “I was ten.”
“They can live twenty years, properly cared for. I just gave him a new shell. I think he likes it, don’t you, Doodle?”
Morse did most of his studying and writing with headphones on, listening to opera and classical music. There were occasional roommate disagreements to mediate, and on Friday and Saturday nights people cut loose.
One Friday night found Morse sprawled across his bed, re-reading A Shropshire Lad, listening to Turandot, and sipping one of the beers he kept hidden in his wardrobe. People were running back and forth, calling to one another. Susan was doing something with her family that weekend, so he was on his own.
By one in the morning things were mostly quiet. Morse had taken a shower and was settled in in a t shirt and pajama bottoms, with thick socks on his feet, doing some reading for his Greek Lit class, when someone started pounding on his door.
“All right, I’m coming! What is it?”
“Ronnie’s throwing up all over! I think he might need an ambulance!”
Morse sighed and followed George Fancy to the room he shared with Ronnie Gidderton. Fancy was a good though naive kid, but Gidderton was a drip. Morse found him puking in a bucket from the cleaner’s cupboard, and the smell of alcohol-saturated sick told Morse all he needed to know. “Were you down the pub?”
“How much did you drink?”
“Three pints of lager. And four shots. I think. It all gets a bit blurry after the second shot.”
Morse rolled his eyes. “Have you ever heard of moderation?”
“I’ll never do it again, I swear.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Once your stomach settles, get some sleep. Water and aspirin in the morning.”
On his way back to his room at the far end of the hall, he noticed 310’s door was ajar. There were a half-dozen girls inside, talking and giggling. He poked his head inside. “Might want to close the door. It’s quiet hours.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” Shirley Trewlove told him, getting up to close the door.
“He’s cute,” Maureen admitted after the door was closed.
“Too stiff,” Shirley said.
“Besides, he has a girlfriend,” Joan added. “Some snooty blonde named Susan. She TAs my French lab. I saw her sneaking out of his room last weekend at dawn.”
“And what were you doing up at dawn?” Shirley teased.
“Having a wee. It’s tragic. We’ve been here a month and I haven’t had my first walk of shame yet. Oh well— at least Doodle loves me. Don’t you, Doodle?” The hermit crab was climbing her sleeve. “Or at least he loves freeze-dried prawns.” Doodle waved a claw like he understood, and she handed him a prawn.
November blew in cold, accompanied by the clanking of the radiators in the dorm. Morse was tired. There’d been a food-poisoning outbreak earlier in the week, with eight of his floor down with it, five on Alice Vexin’s, and six on the ground floor. And despite all the jokes about dorm food, that hadn’t been the cause. He’d dealt with eight sick, scared kids, their equally scared roommates, and wasn’t going to be able to look at pizza for months.
Shirley Trewlove and George Fancy had signed up to do the Wednesday night study break that week. It had been Alice’s idea to hold the weekly breaks, Peter had liked it, and so Morse had been dragged in as well. The girls were good about signing up to run study breaks, the boys not so much. Joan Thursday had done the previous one, with a Halloween theme. Ronnie Gidderton had signed up to help, but only because he had a crush on her
Morse went to 310 and knocked on the door. “Come in! It’s open!” He poked his head in. Joan was at her desk, working on a paper.
“I was looking for Shirley.”
“I need to check with her about the study break.”
“She’s written up a Mad Libs, and George is going to pick up biscuits at Tesco.”
“Here’s an expense form, for whatever they spend. I’ll leave it on her desk.”
“I’ll make sure she gets it.”
Morse squinted. “What’s that on your desk?”
Too late, Joan realized the little tank was in plain sight. Morse crossed the room. “Is that a— a hermit crab?”
Joan hunched her shoulders. “Yes.”
“You can’t have a pet in the dorm.”
“It’s not like he’s going to roam the hall and pee on people’s stuff. He just hangs out in his tank or with me, and doesn’t bother anyone.”
“Still. If they let one pet in, the next thing will be rats gnawing on everything or snakes scaring people. It has to go.”
“He can’t! My family won’t take proper care of him.” Joan frantically tried to think of something to bolster her case. “Besides, he’s not a pet— he’s an emotional support animal!”
“An emotional support animal? It’s a hermit crab! How much emotional support can it give?”
“First of all, it is a he.”
“How do you know?”
“Females have gonopores— a pair of tiny holes underneath. He doesn’t, therefore Doodle is a boy.”
“I was ten. It was either that or Sebastian. And Doodle gives me plenty of emotional support. He listens without judging me, he doesn’t turn around and tell everything, he doesn’t care if I ugly cry, he doesn’t judge how I look. Come to think of it, he’s better than most blokes.”
“The policy is no pets.”
Joan narrowed her eyes. “If you tell Peter about Doodle, I’ll tell him about Susan sneaking out of your room last month. RAs aren’t supposed to have overnight guests in their rooms.”
Morse gaped at her. “You wouldn’t— that’s blackmail!“
Joan shrugged. “Doodle stays.”
Morse sighed. “Doodle stays.”