Home > My Oxford Year(10)

My Oxford Year(10)
Author: Julia Whelan

“How could one not?” Tom and Charlie say in unison.

Maggie rolls her eyes. “But she was never here at the weekend, so I never got to know her well. Then she returned the following year to start her master’s—we spent a short time together doing a bit of research—and about halfway through term . . . she simply disappeared. It was all a bit odd, really.”

“She dropped out?”

Maggie shrugs.

“Obviously,” Charlie begins, drawing the word out, “she found herself unexpectedly enceinte, stole away to the comforting bosom of an eerily-similar-spinster-aunt on the continent for her confinement, and entrusted the infant to the local farmer and his barren wife with the understanding that at the age of ten the child would be sent to England for her schooling under the care and protection of a mysterious patron. Obviously.”

I love book nerds.

Cecelia glances at her watch as I take an obscene bite of scone, then she spots Maggie, who gives her a polite wave. Then she heads in our direction. Great. Tom drops the sandwich bread he’s been scraping mustard off and attends to his frazzled hair, trying desperately to smooth it down.

Charlie can’t help himself. “That’s the way forward, Tom. Nothing like being well groomed.”

Cecelia glides up to our table, smiling serenely. “Hello, Maggie.”

“Hi!” Maggie bleats, a little too brightly.

“How are—” Cecelia begins, but Tom jumps up, as if just realizing he was sitting on a tack. Cecelia starts. He gestures to the chair next to him, imploring it to offer itself to her. Neither he nor the chair speaks.

Maggie saves him from himself. “Sorry. Care to join us?”

“Thank you, no,” Cecelia says in her low, elegant voice. “I thought I’d nip in for a cuppa before I catch my bus. I was so very pleased to see you in class, I’d always rather hoped you’d continue—”

“Thomas Singh!” Tom finally says, thrusting out his hand. “Of the Yorkshire Singhs. Dirt farmers since the days of the Norman Conquest.” He sees my confused look. “On my mother’s side,” he clarifies.

Cecelia inclines her head. “Cecelia Knowles. Of the Sussex Knowleses. Who resisted the Norman Conquest.”

We all chuckle, trying to maintain the appearance of normalcy for Tom’s sake. He still hasn’t released Cecelia from his grasp. “So, which are we destined to be, friends or lovers?”

Cecelia smoothly withdraws her hand. “Friends will do quite nicely, thank you.” The puppy, once again, has had its nose slapped.

“And, of course, you know Charlie Butler,” Maggie says, trudging on. “And this is Ella.”

Cecelia’s eyes pop to me. “Oh dear,” she says. “It is you. I wasn’t sure.”

She was sure.

I swallow the last piece of scone as I reach out a hand. “Ella Durran. Missed the Norman Conquest by a millennium.” I smile. I don’t have any animosity toward her. Honestly. But she seems to have taken an immediate disliking to me.

Cecelia smiles politely and briefly takes my hand. “Sorry, I must dash, I’ll see you all next week in Jamie’s class.” Before I can say anything else, she disappears inside the lobby.

I take a casual sip of tea then ask, in a not-that-it-matters-in-the-slightest tone, “Do you think they’re together? She and Davenport?”

Maggie shakes her head. “If they are, it won’t last, I’m afraid.” She says this the way a soap opera devotee talks about the love lives of the fictional characters.

“What do you mean?”

“Jamie Davenport’s a legend,” Maggie says, eyes wide. “The road between Oxford and Cambridge is positively littered with broken hearts.”

Charlie considers this. “More like dropped knickers. The man invented the three-date rule.”

“So just be careful there,” Maggie says.

It takes me a moment to realize who she’s saying this to. “Wait, me?”

She nods. “Sorry, but there was an undeniable bit of chemistry going between—”

“No there wasn’t!” I leap to my own defense. “I’m not remotely attracted to Jamie Davenport.”

They all just look at me. Together. As if they’d rehearsed it.

I reach for another scone. “Besides, I’m only here until June. It’s all about Oxford. And travel! The last thing I need is a relationship.”

“Then maybe he’s perfect, after all.” Charlie smirks.

Maggie leans in. “I, we, just thought you should know. His reputation does in fact precede him.”

I nod. “I appreciate that.” And I do. But I had seen enough in the chip shop to convince me to stay away.

I TAKE A three-hour jet-lag nap back in my room and wake up groggy, disoriented, and weirdly thirsty. I pound two glasses of water and glance at the clock: 9:00 P.M. I’m wide-awake.

Might as well do some work.

I grab a huge anthology of poetry off my desk and climb back into bed. The book is a monolith, printed on those thin Bible pages. After tea, we all went to Blackwell’s (coolest bookstore in the world) and picked up some of the texts that Jamie Davenport recommended for the term. Tom, who isn’t even in our program, bought all the books, too. Unlike Maggie and Charlie, who just have a certain air about them, I can tell Tom doesn’t come from money (besides the fact that Maggie paid for his tea). His accent is different from theirs, “oohs” instead of “uhs,” “boos” instead of “bus.” He had mentioned that his dad owns a shop—“knickknacks, odds and ends.” A dad who pulled his patronage somewhere between maths and classics and begs Tom to come home so he can retire. Tom named at least three part-time jobs in addition to the tutoring—admin, shelving at the Bod, even coding for the university website. There’s something timeless about him, as if, in the entire history of Oxford, there has always been a Tom, living in a closet of books, bicycling though the city in all weather, sneaking into lectures he doesn’t belong in, changing courses a year shy of completing them.

Charlie, too, seems iconically Oxford to me. I have no idea where he might hail from or, as my mother would say, who “his people are.” He likely just appeared as an infant in a basket of reeds at the Magdalen gates to be molded by Hugh and Eugenia, forged by the ghost of Oscar Wilde.

Maggie mentioned a father who clearly has something to do with banking and a mother who recently moved to France. She boarded somewhere Swiss-sounding for high school (or secondary school), mentioned doing theater in undergrad (though I can’t imagine timid, baby-voiced Maggie treading the boards), and is obsessed with Thomas Hardy.

Now, tucked under my covers, I leaf through the poetry anthology, hoping something jumps out at me. Davenport asked us to describe how a poem makes us feel, so I do a quick scan for the words “feel” or “feeling” or “emotion,” just as a starting point. My eye stops on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Man’s Requirements” and I begin to read.

Love me Sweet, with all thou art,

Feeling, thinking, seeing;

Love me in the lightest part,

Love me in full being.

It goes on to enumerate all the ways in which a man requires a woman to love him. Mentally, spiritually, eternally, completely, whatever. Then it takes a turn:

Thus, if thou wilt prove me, Dear,

Woman’s love no fable.

I will love thee—half a year—

As a man is able.

Damn, EBB. Telling it like it is, like it’s apparently always been, all the way back in 1846.

I have my poem. Even better that it basically describes the person who assigned the essay. Do with that what you will, Davenport.

Two hours later, I have five pages of double-spaced, twelve-point Times New Roman, elucidating everything this poem represents. I dig my notebook out of my bag, find the page where I wrote down Jamie Davenport’s e-mail address, and type it into a new message window. There are three more e-mails from my mother in my in-box. Later. I attach the assignment and then pause over what to write in the body of the e-mail. I settle for:

Prof. Davenport,

Attached, find the essay you requested.



I consider adding “from Ohio,” but I don’t want him to think we have an inside joke. As the whoosh sound carries my essay across town to wherever Jamie Davenport is, I turn my attention to my mother’s e-mails.

I saw Marni Hopkins in the store today and did you know that Bradley is doing graduate school at some place in Spain? Maybe you two

I preemptively delete it.

Next e-mail:

Hi honey why haven’t you called yet? Just check in when you have a moment. You know Marni was very impressed that you got into Oxford. She showed me a picture of Bradley. I think his ears


Last e-mail:

Why does my computer do that color wheel spinning thing. What did you tell me to do the last time this happened?

I fire back immediately:

Restart it.

I sit back and stare at my computer. I could Skype her. It would be, what, five P.M. there? The e-mails came in an hour ago, I know she’s around. But I really don’t have anything to say.

Well, okay, I did get a bike, and found the Happy Cod, and I have a scout, and a Hugh the Porter, and I made friends, and I had a class, and there were scones. Not to mention a dream job.

But let’s not forget that I called my unbeknownst-to-me professor an asshole (to his face), won’t be studying with Styan, and have concluded that I’m not academically competitive here and will probably end up embarrassing not just myself, but also the Rhodes Foundation.

A lot has happened since my passport was stamped. I take a deep breath. It’s okay. I have redeemed myself with this essay. Everything will get back on track. I just don’t want to talk to my mother until it has.

I know her. Much better than she will ever know me.

My mother lives in a constant state of fearful anxiety. She thinks everything is falling apart, all the time, all at once, when there is nothing in her life that could possibly fall apart. She’s had the same job for twenty years, she doesn’t travel, she doesn’t date, the house is paid for, she has two carbon monoxide detectors, she goes to the doctor, like, three times a year, and she avoids any public place where someone might (“you never know, Ella, the world has gone crazy”) have a gun. Literally, unless a sinkhole opens up under her Volvo on her two-mile drive to work, nothing’s going to happen to her.

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