I used to think that I should have a different name, after all, Jack Hart sounds like he should be interesting, dynamic and with an air of mystery. This Jack Hart had just spent the last 3 hours standing in some god-forsaken corner of Birmingham with a camera and a notepad watching a bunch of diesel locos being run up and down a yard.
No anorak, no thermos, no spots, but very much a teenage trainspotter. 18 years old isn't a great age to be a trainspotter, well, a heritage train fan, or whatever we choose to call ourselves. We get the piss taken out of us at school or college by our peers, and the adults regard you with contempt as you haven't grown up with all trains being hauled by a steam or diesel locomotive.
The occasional trips away from Liverpool to visit other parts of the country were sadly the highlights of my existence. It was March, so I was 6 months away from heading to university to study Engineering. My life consisted of waking up, getting a bus to school, studying in school, studying on the way home and studying at home before going to bed.
Having no social life, no love life, not even a hidden addiction to Facebook or online poker, suited me fine. I'd have time for that later, probably in the years of unemployment that will follow my eventual graduation. Increased tuition fees and decreased employment prospects at the end of it, but I was expected to go to university, so that was that. My trip to Birmingham might have been just like all the others, but for the string of events on the way home that still don't fully seem real. They were so unlike everything else that happens in my life that my mind is treating them like a dream.
Anyway, thanks to various 'incidents on the track', it turned out the quickest way back to New Street Station in the city centre was by bus. I was tagging along with three guys who seemed to tolerate my company. We got on the bus and sat down near the front. Having never been this way before I sat and stared out the window, not paying attention to what was going on in the bus.
It then came as quite a surprise when I saw the three guys I was with walking into the revolving doors of a book shop in a new large glass building. The bus started pulling off, and I realised they'd left me behind. I first thought of going on without them, but curiosity got the better of me and I rang the bell to get off at the next stop.
It took me a few minutes to walk back to the shop. I was thinking to myself what I'd say to them for having left me on the bus. I was wondering if they had even noticed. As soon as I got through the doors, I knew there was no point; it was not like I was likely to find them again: this place was huge.
Of course, they would be heading to the transport section, but despite this being a city I know nobody in and my predilection for standing on platforms with cameras, I don't like to be seen reading train books in public. Like porn I suppose, if is acceptable to be viewed in specialist shops, but I don't like to be noticed checking the latest steam centrefolds by normal people.
Also, I have rarely been impressed by the selection in mainstream shops compared with those in dedicated shops. However, curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to have a roam around.
The ground floor consisted of little more than a large balcony overlooking three levels of bookshelves, sofas and coffee shops. There were another three floors above. Shining escalators, glass elevators and brushed aluminium spiral staircases linked the levels.
The computing section was right down at the bottom. I looked went off in search of the downward escalators. For a low-level intellectual snob like myself, it was heartening to find that a place like this was really busy, even late into Saturday afternoon. Most of the customers were in their teens and early twenties, probably students.
There didn't actually seem to be too many people queuing at the checkouts, but there were lots of people with books drinking coffee and relaxing on armchairs.
I pretty much lost track of time as I was exploring the wonders of this great place, but a cursory glance at my phone told me I'd spent over an hour inside.
Outside, I went to the bus stop and found to my displeasure that there wasn't enough bus for nearly an hour. I figured that I was only a mile or so from the city centre, and reasoning that it can't be that hard to find, I walked off up the road.
It wasn't long before I found myself in a university campus. The university wasn't one I was familiar with, The Joseph Locke University, but it brought a smile to my face. Locke was one of the greatest, but often overlooked, engineers of the start of the railway age.
By the looks of it, it was all only a year or so old. Vast towers and edifices all finished in either glass or bright colours. Most of them looked like they were designed by architects who disbelieved that any walls should be straight from the ground all the way up. I could imagine them coming up with the ideas sitting in a shoe shop and seeing the boxes stacked clumsily at the checkout.
I cut between the buildings heading towards where I thought the city centre should be. One of the most interesting buildings was a combination of cylinder and a wave, the required glass and friendly coloured concrete exterior shone invitingly. A few sets of coloured spotlights danced up and down the walls. The sign announced it was the Student Union building.
I thought it might me interesting for me to have a look in; after all, I hadn't had a chance to go into one at any of my interviews.
It wasn't what I'd expected. There were no grotty ripped seats, collapsed Goths in dark corners or tatty posters for pretentiously named bands. It looked as if they had run around Ikea with an unlimited budget. There were lots of sweeping curves, softwood furniture and glass bricks.
I wandered around for a while marvelling at how clean and friendly it all was, then I realised that it needed to blend in a bit so headed to the bar.
I'm not a drinker, having no social life means that unless I want to sneak bottles of WKD into my room, I don't encounter it much. Anyway, when in Rome (or whatever bit of Birmingham this was supposed to be), I thought and ordered some brightly coloured bottle from the bar and headed towards a quiet corner to watch the football on the flat screen.
The drink attempted to taste of a cross between strawberries and oranges in an effort to hide the alcohol from young and delicate drinkers like myself. I spent a few minutes trying to figure out who was playing, before coming to the realisation that I didn't really care anyway and dug out a text book to read.
As you may have noticed, I tend to lose track of time when I'm concentrating on things. As such have no idea how long I had been nursing the drink, but when she started yelling at me, the match had finished.
"Look what we have here, a stranger!" It had taken me a few seconds to register that she was talking about me. I looked up and saw a rather pretty brunette striding across the room, smiling menacingly.
I noticed that the bar was now pretty sparsely populated.
"I haven't seen you here before." "I'm err, just passing through." "Student?" "Err, yes." Between my hesitation and then my over enthusiasm, I think it was obvious that I wasn't a student at the uni.
"Hmmm," she hmmed, "college student I bet, out of town. Well, by the look of your book you want to be heading to uni soon, let's show you what life is like on campus. Come with me." I could tell that was not a request. She waited a moment for me to pack my book away then grabbed my hand and led me away. It felt odd to have a girl hold my hand.
She was wearing a loose, flowing, brown dress which showed off a bit of cleavage. She walked quickly, leading me into a large auditorium which was mostly full.
We entered at the top, in the back row of the seating which was set out like an amphitheatre. She sat me down near the front on the right hand side, with a load of other guys, then came over and handed me a piece of paper with a large number five written on it.
She went to sit on a chair at the back of the stage along with a couple of other girls. They huddled into conversation for a few minutes then she walked up to the front of the stage and grabbed a microphone from its stand.
"Gentlemen, and especially Ladies, welcome to the charity auction. This time, it is the guys' turn to be sold. What you do with you guy for the twelve hours is up to you, but ladies, let's not do anything you wouldn't want done to you.
"We have thirty guys on the block tonight, and it looks like at least seventy bidders. All money is going to Cancer Research, and it looks like we will be raising at lot of money tonight." I was struggling to comprehend what was going on here. What had I stumbled into?
"First up is an old favourite, Kieran Stroud. Captain of the rugby First Fithteen, President of the Athletic Union, and now in his third year of a degree in French and German. Yes ladies, he really is a cunning linguist. We'll start the bidding at one pound." A number of girls competed for the guy, the winner paid fifteen pounds for him. Next up was an officer of the students union, and then was a computer scientist who I assume could be described as handsome. They each went for a bit less than the first guy. I realised that I'd be up soon.
Why was I still sitting here? Why hadn't I have walked out? What if nobody bids for me? Even worse, what if somebody did? Who would pay money for my company? After all, I was such great company I'd been ditched by a couple of trainspotters.
"And now for our fifth participant, we have somebody special. Number five, come up here please?" She was looking at me. I found myself rising up from my seat and walking onto the stage.
"Number five here is a prospective student. I found him studying the bar. What's your name?" "Jack, Jack Hart." "Ladies, meet Jack Hart, the boy of mystery. Behind that innocent face is he a silver-tongued charmer, is he a sex addict packing ten inches of lovemaker, or is he just a bookworm waiting to be loved? Is he Jack Hart or Jack Hartbreaker? Ladies, you can find out? Does he look like he needs somebody to break him in? Remember that on Monday he will be going back to school, why no give him a story to tell his friends about Joseph Locke students being the friendliest in the country? Or that our girls are the hottest? Who wants to start the bidding at one pound?" As good as that intro was, it only convinced a few girls to offer up some money. Which still came as a surprise to me. In the end I went for seven pounds and twenty-five pence.
The girl who won me bounded up to the stage. Okay, she wasn't exactly a hottie, but she was cute, in her own way. She was short, only five foot, but had a nicer set of curves than a Stirling Single. She had a bob of dirty-blonde hair, her freckly face had large blue eyes and a cute pug nose. She grabbed by arm and started to lead me up the stairs and out of the door.
"Err, I think I need to call home." I stuttered as we left the Union building.
I fumbled for my mobile in my pocket, then dialled home. Mum answered.
"Hi mum, it's me." "Oh hi, are you on your way back?" "No, I don't think I'll be back till tomorrow." "Really, what are you doing?" "Well I wandered into a university and somehow got sold to a girl for the night!" "Honestly, if you don't want to tell me, then that's fine. Just ring me if you are going to be later than tomorrow afternoon." I sighed and switched off my phone.
The girl was laughing at me. "It's cute that you don't lie to your mum, even now." "She didn't believe me anyway, I might as well have." "I take it that you don't often get bought and sold then?" "No, you're the first." "Well then Jack of Harts, I am honoured." "Thank you. I should ask, what's your name?" "No, I am called Honoured. Honoured Guest." "Seriously?" "Yes, really. I suspect that my parents had a bet going with one of my dad's mates. Although it could have been worse, at least they were trying for me. If I was unplanned, I could have been Uninvited Guest!" I had to laugh at that. She lead me through the campus keeping a tight hold on my arm as if she thought I was going to run away at any moment. It made me wonder if people normally ran away from her.
She talked about herself a lot. She was an engineering student, although she was doing civil rather than the mechanical that I wanted to do. She was an odd mix of being incredibly funny but also very intense. She didn't stop talking for the ten minutes we walked to a large multi-coloured block of flats. We took the lift up to the top floor and she took me into a long room with floor to ceiling windows which overlooked the city. Aside from the lift shaft, it seemed to cover the whole floor.
"Welcome to the Madhouse!" She grinned. "This is a living sociology experiment." One end of the room had a few sofas, a table and a television, which was as expected for a flat. Also expected was the kitchen, also it was a bit tidier than I'd have expected. I'd first taken it that this was just the lounge, abet a very large one, but then I noticed that at the other end of the room where two rows of what looked like glass offices. Most of the glass was opaque, but some were transparent. Looking at the transparent one, I could see it was actually a bedroom.