(Please note all names in the following have been changed. But the events unfolded pretty much as depicted.)
One Sunday afternoon some years ago, I went with my then-girlfriend and her Mum to see the college she’d been accepted at, to look at the general area the Halls of residence were in, that sort of thing.
I can understand why they did this – when I’d first visited Wolverhampton with my parents to try to find some digs, it had been a Saturday (meaning the various landlords we called tended not to be there), the few places we looked at were both grotty and costly, and the rain was hurtling down from a depressing grey sky. I seriously reconsidered the whole idea of going to college, I have to admit.
Anyway. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon as the three of us walked around the out-of-town area which contained the Halls of residence, and there were trees and patches of greenery all round. It seemed very pleasant, and everyone said as much.
As we skulked outside the general grounds of the Halls, not really feeling entirely comfortable with the idea of going in as we weren’t entirely legitimate visitors, a woman and a teenage girl came along and joined us in peering in, and trying to get the general feel of the place.
“Are… are you coming here too?” my girlfriend’s mother asked them.
“Yes, that’s right,” said the woman, clearly the girl’s mother. “ Starting in September.”
“Mmm, Sarah’s starting here then too,” said my girlfriend’s mum. “It looks nice – I’m glad, we weren’t quite sure about it, but, well, she did a bit better than predicted in her exams, so…”
“Oh yes,” said the other mother, “Kelly did too, so…”
The conversation dried up at that moment, and I recall distinctly the sound; it lasted only a second or two, but as the back-and-forth ended and the five of us stood there faintly awkwardly, I could hear the sound of cars a few streets away, a distant rumble, but closer, the chirping of birds in the trees. And as we stood there, the two proud and hopeful parents starting to play the comparison game, I realised that the sudden silence, born of sentences which weren’t really designed to further the conversation but instead to express the polite rivalry prevalent between so many parents – that silence, I suddenly thought, made a lie of the old song.
That sudden lull in the conversation, I knew, was truly the sound of the suburbs.