The train out of Leicester was stuck behind a faulty goods train so Robert arrived at Oxford an hour later than he’d intended. He’d spent an anxious time at Birmingham New Street station wondering whether he would have to buy another ticket, and how he would get to the college if he missed the bus laid on for interviewees. His father had given him five pounds “in case of emergency” but he was saving that towards a copy of the new physics sensation, A Brief History of Time.
His original ticket wasn’t checked on the train, so he still had his fiver, but he was too late for the bus. Robert decided to save on a taxi fare and he set off on foot, following signs to the city centre. In a crowd of tourists milling around a crossroads, he pulled out the map the college had sent and saw he was probably only a few minutes walk away. Just as well, he thought, he’d lost most of his contingency time already and was in danger of being late.
He walked fast down the high street past several huge stone buildings until he came to a bridge over the river. He checked the map and saw he’d come too far. He wondered which of the anonymous buildings was the college which had, amazingly, called him for an interview. Each building had one small ancient door either firmly shut or barred by a notice stating “No Visitors”.
At the first open door, Robert plucked up courage, climbed the stone steps and skirted the forbidding notice. He was addressed by an elderly man sitting in a cubicle behind a dirty window: “Are you for Professor Parker today?” Robert checked his interview letter again. “Er – is this University College? I’ve got maths interviews, starting at two o’clock. I’m just a few minutes late I think”. He was let through and directed to an opening on the far side of a large courtyard.
Robert had thought Oxford would be different but this was beyond what he had imagined. This was daunting. The stone buildings, the mullioned windows, the manicured turf were nothing like school, nothing like the other university he had visited. The place reminded him only of Leicester cathedral and the nervous business of confirmation there. Robert could feel his asthma, already set off by his rapid walk, taking hold. He took a quick breath from his inhaler, checked the list on the door in front of him for his name, and knocked.
The room was huge. Robert took twenty steps towards a large table, behind which sat five men studying papers. The man in the centre looked up and spoke. “Good afternoon, Mr Rees. It is Mr Robert Rees isn’t it? I’m Professor Parker, and these are my colleagues Professor Busbridge, Dr Briggs, Dr O’Brien and Dr Patterson. Do sit down.”
“Er, afternoon.” Robert sat facing the men, trying to see if the papers were his entrance exam.
“Tell us, Mr Rees, why you applied for a place to read mathematics at this university.”
“Um, well, I like maths, I did alright at exams, um, my teachers said I should try to get in here…”
“I see. Do you think you did alright in our entrance exam?”
“Well er I think the first question was, I didn’t really know what it was about, I didn’t know what a mapping was, I haven’t heard about that before.” Robert felt sick; he couldn’t recall much about any of the other questions. There was a pause.
“Alright. What particular topics have you been studying in your pure mathematics A-level course this term?”
Robert’s mind went blank. What on earth had he been doing at school this term? And what on earth was he doing here? He fought the desire to get his inhaler out and tried to imagine himself back at school.
“Well algebra I think, some geometry, we did a bit more calculus a few weeks ago.”
Professor Parker drew on one of his stock interview questions. “Calculus, yes, maybe you could tell us what integration by parts is?”
Robert’s mind blanked again. He shifted in his seat. “Um. I’m sorry. I don’t, I can’t, I don’t remember”. Another pause. “I like numbers.” That was pathetic. It was true, but no sort of answer to the question. He was throwing his chance of a precious place away.
“Alright. Mr Rees. You say you like numbers. What is twenty five minus seven?”
Robert paused for some seconds. Then he thought, I can’t answer that question, I don’t know what twenty five minus seven is. He got up, turned round and walked twenty paces back towards the door. Nobody said a word. He opened the door, walked down the stairs, round the courtyard and out of the college, up the high street and back to the railway station.
In August Robert received top grades in each of his A-level exams, and distinction in the special papers.
Three years later Robert obtained a first class honours degree in pure mathematics from Manchester University.
He is now the author of several best-selling computing books and training videos, and one of the best software developers I know