Annie collected her room key from the college’s Residence Office. The lady in the office was surprised by Annie’s punctuality. “You must be bursting to get started!” the lady exclaimed with a grin. Annie smiled sheepishly, deflecting any follow-up questions by asking the lady to confirm directions to her block. Annie already knew the way, of course. She had prepared for moving in well ahead of time and the details of her apartment block, apartment number and room were all confirmed in advance. From multiple inspections of the college map online, Annie had a clear understanding of all essential routes to and from her new abode. As the lady offered a loose set of directions, Annie nodded along politely, gathering her things and moving towards the door, parting with thanks as the door closed behind her.
Her parents called her ‘Anxious Annie’ jokingly and, in Annie’s opinion, inaccurately. She never felt anxious in situations where she felt some sense of control. Give Annie control and there would not be one flicker of anxiety. All she needed was a little bit of control to cope with any situation. But… randomly allocated housemates? Annie could not help but feel unnerved by that. College is an opportunity, her parents argued; an opportunity to take some risks, to get out there and meet new people. “What if one of them is a murderer?” Annie had retorted. “What if they’re all murderers? What if college is an opportunity for them to murder me, for me to take a risk of being murdered, and getting out there and meeting murderers that will murder me?” Despite all respectful (and less than respectful) disagreement, Annie could not change her parents’ minds. Instead, she was left with no option but to take control of her new living arrangements and plan accordingly.
She entered the apartment and a brief inspection of the various rooms confirmed that Annie was the first to arrive. Without wasting a moment, Annie put her plan in motion. Leaving her bag and luggage case in her room, Annie moved to the kitchen area with a shopping bag containing items of necessity to her scheme. She placed a one-litre carton of milk in the fridge, left a box of teabags and a jar of coffee on the counter by the kettle, and added a small bag of sugar, just in case. But, most importantly of all, Annie set a biscuit tin on the kitchen table with a little note on the lid:
Hello new housemates!
Might not get to welcome you all in person, so there’s tea and coffee by the kettle and some biscuits to help you settle in.
See you soon,
On the outside, it was a generous, welcoming gesture. In reality, Annie had devised a cunning plan to get an impression of her new housemates without having to meet them face to face. She called it the Biscuit Tin Test as all it required was a standard two-layer tin of biscuits and some time. The way Annie saw it, there were a small set of possible outcomes to leaving a tin of biscuits out for people to consume. In an ideal world, Annie’s new housemates would clear the top layer before the bottom layer was touched. This would show Annie that her new housemates could compromise and collaborate, all while remaining respectful. Or it would show that her new housemates just really liked biscuits. Annie could cope with either reason for that result, even though she knew it was the most optimistic possibility. Following on from the ideal, an acceptable result would be some of the less-attractive biscuits remaining in the top layer and an untouched bottom layer. Annie figured she could get along with people who were open about what they do and do not like.
In terms of negative outcomes, eating anything from the bottom layer before the top layer was finished was an instant fail. Annie would be constantly on her guard around the apartment if that was to happen. People who went to the bottom layer before it was appropriate could not be her lifelong friends. Worst of all results, if only the nicest biscuits were eaten from both layers, Annie would be hiding away in her room for the year. She wanted no contact at all with people who were that selfish and inconsiderate. As far as Annie was concerned, all possible results fitted somewhere in this range. She concluded that a scenario in which the tin of biscuits went unopened was simply inconceivable and that the entire tin of biscuits being consumed was impractical. Overall, Annie was confident that the test would return a true reflection of her new housemates personalities.
Once everything was in place, Annie withdrew into her room and shut the door. She would let the test run its course. As far as her new housemates would know, Annie was not even there. Sitting on her freshly made-up bed, reading as the day unfolded, Annie heard the sounds of different housemates arriving. She listened as they unloaded their bags and boxes in their rooms. She heard their horrified reactions to the conditions of the shared bathrooms. She noted the time they spent in the kitchen, making their introductions, and the low yet unmistakable sound of a boiling kettle. Everything seemed to be progressing according to plan. Despite the seemingly warm and cheerful tone of conversations taking place in the kitchen, Annie was still not ready to meet her new housemates; not individually and certainly not as one group. Before any of that, she wanted the results of the biscuit tin test.
As the night drew in, Annie heard the sounds of her new housemates in the hallway, saying goodnight to each other and returning to their rooms. A brief rotation of visits to the bathrooms later and the apartment was quiet. Still, Annie waited until she could be sure the common areas lay undisturbed. Hours passed until, after a patient if nerve-wracking wait, Annie made her move. She gently unlocked her bedroom door and followed the dull green glow of the emergency lighting to find her way to the kitchen. She tiptoed softly along the hallway before easing the kitchen door open. By this time, Annie could see the kitchen well enough by way of streetlights outside. She saw the traces of the day’s activities: the open box of teabags, used mugs beside the sink, and, sitting on the table, the biscuit tin.
Annie moved towards the table and inspected the scene. The tin had certainly been opened, that much was obvious as the plastic seal from around the lid had been removed. Annie paused for a moment, taking time to ensure that her night-time stirrings had gone undetected. Reassured that all was as it should be, she placed her fingertips on both sides of the lid, slowly raising the lid off of the tin to reveal the top tray underneath. Annie inhaled sharply, stifling a gasp. She took the lid in one hand and, using her spare hand, lifted the top tray to inspect the layer underneath. On seeing this, Annie could not help but gasp. A few moments passed as Annie gathered her thoughts, remembering all of a sudden that she was in the communal kitchen area. She restored the top tray, closed the lid with as little noise as possible, and swiftly shuffled back to her room.
Within minutes, Annie was walking off the college campus, carrying a backpack of hurriedly-assembled essentials. In her hand, her mobile phone attempted once more to connect with either of her parents. Although they were surely asleep at this hour, Annie knew her parents kept their phones on in case of an emergency call. Tears streamed down Annie’s face; this was an emergency. Annie’s phone screen flickered to show that her call had connected.
“Annie?” her mother answered, in the dreary voice of someone woken from rest, “Annie, are you OK?”
“MOM! I’M LEAVING! I CAN’T STAY! THEY’RE NOT HUMAN-THE OTHERS-THEY CAN’T BE HUMAN-”
Annie’s mother calmly cut in, “Go easy, dear. What do you mean they can’t be human?”
“THE BISCUIT TIN TEST-THEY FAILED THE BISCUIT TIN TEST!”
“What are you talking about, Annie?”
Annie took a deep breath and composed herself as best she could. “I left them with a tin of biscuits. I went back to check it and they have only eaten the shortbread biscuits. Not a single chocolate one or jammy dodger. Only the shortbread biscuits.”
There was silence. Annie’s mother started: “I…I -”
“From both layers,” Annie added while her mother hesitated. “They only ate the shortbread biscuits…from both layers.”
In the silence, Annie could hear her mother waking her father in the background. After a brief exchange, her mother’s voice returned. “Get to a safe location and drop a message to your dad, he’s on his way.”
In that moment, Annie felt inexplicably grateful to have her parents. There are some things that only family can truly understand. Housemates that only eat shortbread biscuits from a selection? And from both layers too? There was no way to recover that kind of living situation. No one could cope with that.