Home > My Oxford Year(13)

My Oxford Year(13)
Author: Julia Whelan

Davenport’s quiet, measured voice fills the room:

“Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.”

I look at him. He recites from memory, gaze on the arm of my chair. He doesn’t continue, so, after a moment, I do:

“Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

God, isn’t that the truth? The words arrest me for a moment. I realize I’m not breathing. I forcibly inhale and continue:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain . . .”

My voice snags on the last syllable, like a bramble capturing my skirt. Davenport picks up the thread:

“Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight . . .”

And I finish:

“Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Moving fast but steady, he scoots to the edge of his chair and reaches over, closing the book in my lap, his hand resting on its cover. That same hand that was splayed in front of me in the Bodleian. I stare at it. “Now tell me,” he murmurs in a low voice, “what is Matthew Arnold saying?” I hesitate, thinking. “Don’t think.” I close my eyes. “If you don’t open yourself up, how can you ever be surprised by life? And if you’re not surprised, what’s the bloody point?”

Breathe. “That in death . . . love is all there is.”

“And how does that make you feel?” He presses into the book for emphasis and I feel the pressure in my lap.

I open my eyes, look up. His face is inches from mine, his eyes questing. The word falls out of my mouth. “Lonely.” And I finally realize what it is about his eyes. They’re the color of this swimming hole I used to spend summers at as a kid, at the end of a trail, at the base of a waterfall. The color was so magical I was convinced if I could hold my breath long enough, swim deep enough, pump my legs hard enough, I’d discover the bottom wasn’t a bottom at all, but a portal to another world.

I feel my eyes fill, swelling to the brim. But nothing spills over.

Surface tension.

His eyes continue to bore into mine. I hear myself say, “How does it make you feel?”

For the briefest of seconds his eyes drop to my mouth before they blink back to my eyes. “Hopeful.”

I can’t stop swimming in those pools.

The realization comes at me sideways, like the buffeting of air from a semi on the highway:

I just lived years of my life in those eyes.

A voice: “Jamie, I’ve just had a ring from your—oh! So sorry, I didn’t—”

He’s standing, sweeping up the anthology with him. Only then do I hear my phone ringing. I stand as well, my legs unsteady, feeling as if I should be buttoning something up. I turn to the doorway and see Cecelia. She’s looking at the floor, saying, “The door was open, I didn’t—” I’m not sure if she is talking to me, or Jamie, or both of us.

“No, it’s fine,” I say breezily, taking my phone out of my pocket and walking to the door on shaking legs. “We’re done. And I need to take this.”

“Yes. Of course,” he says, crossing in the opposite direction, back to his desk. “See you in class.”

I slide past Cecelia, muttering, “You too.” I answer my phone. “Yes, Gavin?”

Chapter 9

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,

And not in paths of high morality,

And not among the half-distinguished faces,

The clouded forms of long-past history.

Charlotte Brontë (possibly Emily), “Stanzas,” 1850

The grilling began at the Bombay Curry House when, after being uncharacteristically quiet all evening and barely eating my chicken tikka masala, I failed to dodge Charlie’s loaded question: “How was the tute?”

Now, after thirty minutes of detailing and defending, I need a drink. Badly. “Guys! It wasn’t a big deal. Really. Let it go.”

Maggie looks at me. I can tell she senses that I was more affected by the tutorial than I’m letting on and, unlike Charlie and Tom, I think she also senses that the undertow of sexual chemistry is secondary to something larger. Something I don’t even understand myself.

I stand up from the table and announce, “Well, I don’t know about you locals, but this American’s going to her first British pub.”

Charlie and Maggie gasp. Tom drops his fork. They shout, “You’ve never been to a pub?!”

ON THE WALK up St. Giles, Maggie informs me, “Pubs are like churches here.”

“Right,” Charlie replies. “Except we consider them sacred and attend them religiously.” Then he pulls open the old, beaten-to-hell door of the Eagle and Child.

The Eagle and Freaking Child. This isn’t just a pub, this is the legendary watering hole that hosted the Inklings, an informal assemblage of writers including J. R. R. Tolkein and Magdalen’s own C. S. Lewis. I get a chill when I walk through the door. I turn to share the moment with my companions, but they’re already halfway to the bar, immune to the ghosts of history.

The pub has beams that make the ceiling head-bumpingly low in places. Tom stands with his head at a constant tilt, unbothered. Rooms lead to other rooms, which grow progressively smaller, like caverns in a cave system. It smells like hops and rain.

Charlie turns to me, taking me by surprise. “Tipple, darling?”

I come back to reality. “Yes! Cider!”

He shakes his head. “Save your cider for Old Rosie at the Turf.”

“Then a Grey Goose dirty martini, straight up, three olives.”

Charlie attempts a kindly face. He fails. “This isn’t a bar. It’s a pub.” He turns away from me, leans in to the burly bartender, and says, “Gin and tonic for the missus.”

We take our drinks over to Maggie and Tom, already halfway through their pints of thick black beer. Charlie waves at someone, his hand brushing the ceiling. I go up on my toes to see above the crowd.

Oh.

Cecelia.

I quickly scan the group she’s with and ascertain that Davenport isn’t among them. Surprising.

“Cecelia wants us to join her. Shall we?” Charlie asks, but is already walking over. Tom, seeing where we’re headed, waves enthusiastically at Cecelia, as if welcoming a soldier home from war. She gives him a princessy three-fingered wave back.

As we approach the table, it occurs to me that Davenport could actually be here somewhere. At the bar, or in the bathroom. But Cecelia is making introductions and I force myself to pay attention. “This is Ahmed,” she says, indicating a suave-looking guy with a pencil-thin mustache who gives us a cheeky salute. “His father’s the Jordanian ambassador.” Seems like unnecessary information, but no one else blinks. Ahmed puts his finger to his lips—shhh—and pretends to hide his beer. I smile at him. Cecelia then turns to a ridiculously hot guy sitting next to him, who I realize is Charlie’s rower. “And this is my second cousin Ridley,” Cecelia says, smiling. Of course they’re related. Gorgeousness this obvious can’t be coincidental.

Charlie elbows me and breathes into my ear, “When our children ask me, ‘Funny Daddy, where did you meet Pretty Daddy?’ I shall answer, ‘Why, the back room of the Bird and Baby, of course.’”

“And this,” Cecelia continues, gesturing to a guy slouched over at the end of the bench like a zombie, “is Ian.”

Ian rouses himself enough to say, “Ian is arse over tits, at the moment.” He gives us a smile that reminds me of one of Dalí’s melting clocks. Then his half-lidded gaze finds me. “An’ who’s this?” He leers.

Cecelia brushes the hair back from her face as if she is being photographed. “This is Emma.”

“Ella, actually.”

“Of course,” she says, not even glancing at me. “And this is Charlie, Maggie, and Tom.”

“Please, join us,” Ahmed says gallantly, sweeping his arm at the table. They’re collected around an L-shaped banquette with two chairs opposite the long side.

“I’ve been saving this spot for you all night!” Ian slurs, patting the space next to him on the bench, looking, unfortunately, right at me.

Charlie doesn’t waste a second, hopping into the chair directly across from Ridley, as if joining him in a scull. Tom takes the chair next to Charlie, hoping that his newest “friend,” Cecelia, places herself next to him on the short side of the banquette. No dice. She takes Maggie’s arm and, in a very girlfriendy way, slides to the far side of the bench, pulling Maggie in after her, placing Maggie between Tom and herself.

And then there was one.

There’s one spot left and its occupant has been preordained by Drunk Ian, who crawls out of the booth. “Ladies in the middle,” he slurs. Reluctantly, I slide in next to Ridley, and Ian follows me in, already a bit too close for comfort.

“Thanks,” I mutter.

Apparently that one word is enough to give me away. “A Yank!” Ian exclaims.

Ahmed leans around Ridley and addresses me. “Are you a Rhodes scholar, then?”

“That obvious?” I laugh.

He smiles tightly. “Always nice to have a Rhodie at the table.”

He’s saying the exact opposite of what he means. His father may be an ambassador, but Ahmed’s diplomacy could use some work.

“I’m honestly curious.” I shrug, wanting to play nice. “What exactly is the ‘Rhodie’ reputation here in Oxford?”

Before anyone can answer, Ian comes to life. “Bloody insufferable,” he yells. “They think they’re the cleverestest blokes in the room, but they can’t wipe their own arse without a manual.”

Silence.

“They’re also loud!” Ian shouts.

Cecelia clears her throat. “I think what Ian is trying to say—quite poorly—is that Rhodes scholars are often selected for their academic achievement and professional drive. However, once here, they can have a difficult time adjusting to the freedom from structure that Oxford affords.” She gazes calmly at me. “They don’t know what to do with the rather significant amount of time between classes, the lack of syllabi, and such.” She affords me a small smile. “Also, they often seem quite overwhelmed by the, shall we say, unorthodox relationships that can often occur between student and tutor.”

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