Home > My Oxford Year(11)

My Oxford Year(11)
Author: Julia Whelan

She wasn’t always like this. But it’s been so long that it feels like always.

I’m just tired.

I just miss my dad.

The ding of incoming e-mail distracts me from this rabbit hole of familial failing. I lean forward to look, sure it’s my mother saying she restarted the computer, but now the screen is looking at her funny—

My stomach flips when I see the sender: James Davenport.

Looking forward to reading. Have a good night.

Not “Surprised to see your work so soon”? Not “Very impressive, Ella from Ohio”?

He’s being professional. As he should be. Because he’s my professor now, not some mystery-eyed guy in a chip shop who looked at me as if I were the most delicious thing on the menu.

I’m not going to reply. What would I say? “You too? I hope you enjoy it? What are you doing tonight?”

I also won’t Google him. And while I have to maintain a professional Twitter account, I’m not on any other forms of social media. Not only do I find it too much of a time suck, but it also provides too many opportunities to embarrass myself in front of potential clients; if they never see you do anything wrong, you never have to apologize.

I look back at the e-mail, my eyes inexplicably drawn to it, as if, instead of two innocuous sentences, there were a naked, beefcake picture of the sender. He’d be Mr. September in the Hotties of Oxford calendar for sure. Welcome back to school, ladies. Jamie Davenport on a library ladder, rippling abs all oiled up, inevitably holding a book in front of his junk.

At least I can still make myself laugh.

THE NEXT FEW days fly by faster than I can account for them. I finally feel like I’m in the right time zone and I can understand the accent now. Although I would have been happy to misunderstand the drunk guy who walked past me last night, then turned to his mate and loudly slurred, “Oi, that’s a tasty bit.” I’ve also managed to sleep through Eugenia’s arrival three mornings in a row, and I’ve had my two other classes, but the professors didn’t assign any work.

No, only Mr. Jamie Davenport does that, apparently. Then never reads it. Apparently.

I spend my days cutting through the course’s suggested reading and fielding Gavin’s requests. His e-mails come in at all hours. He calls at least once a day.

In the late afternoons, Maggie and I get on our bikes and she shows me the city. Maggie comes from London (she mentions an area and then apologizes in a tone that has me suspecting it’s an embarrassingly posh neighborhood), but she did her undergrad at Magdalen, so she knows every corner of Oxford. She takes me through narrow, winding stone paths and special little places she’s discovered over her years here. Now she lives in Exeter College’s graduate housing complex, where she shares a kitchen and living area with four other students: two Chinese guys, a Rubenesque British girl who insists on only speaking Italian, and an older Middle Eastern woman who—as far as Maggie can tell—is never actually there. As a result, Maggie spends a lot of time with me.

At the end of our rides, we tend to join Charlie and Tom for dinner, so I’ve also been getting familiar with Oxford’s hit-or-miss cuisine. I’m ashamed to admit that I already miss American food. I’d exchange sexual favors with anyone who could direct me to a decent cheeseburger.

Today Charlie and I are standing in the upper reading room of the Bodleian Library. Charlie gives me a tour, clutching a book on rowing to his side and whispering Oxford trivia. “The Bodleian has a copy of every book ever printed in the UK since 1611.”

I silently repeat the way he pronounced it (Bod-lee-un), understanding why everyone just calls it “the Bod.” The room is beautiful and cavernous, mostly filled with reading tables and chairs. I notice only a few stacks. “Where do they hide them all?” I whisper.

Charlie points down at the hardwood, seeming to indicate rooms and floors that live beneath us. He tosses a glance over his shoulder, then slips behind the unattended front desk. He reaches under the counter and pulls out a glossy magazine with the word “TATLER” in bold print. He hands it to me. “There’s always a new issue stuffed under here.”

I leaf through it and see picture after picture of people I don’t recognize. It’s like an alternate universe. It seems Britain has its own version of Kardashians. “You know what’s interesting,” I begin. “These people are totally interchangeable with—” but I’m interrupted by the sound of a book dropping down onto the counter next to me.

I look at the book: Dear and Honored Lady: The Correspondence Between Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson. There’s more to read, but it’s blocked by the hand splayed across the cover. It’s a nice, masculine hand. Long and tapered fingers, just the right amount of wrist hair, clean fingernails—

“Ella?”

Startled, I glance up and find the stabbing blue eyes of Jamie Davenport looking down at me. “My rooms, if you will. Today. Half three.”

Not hearing what he says, I nod. He glances down at the Tatler. Raises an eyebrow. “Research?” he says, oozing sarcasm. Then he looks back at me, smiles tightly, and is gone.

“Masterful,” Charlie breathes.

Wherever I just was, I come back to Charlie and the Bod. I’m completely lost. Maybe I overestimated my grasp of the British language. “What did he just say?”

Charlie’s eyes are wide. “He wants you.”

Chapter 8

Did he not come to me?

What thing could keep true Launcelot away

If I said, Come?

William Morris, “The Defence of Guenevere,” 1858

I’ve made my way to Lincoln, a small medieval college with a converted church for a library in the middle of town on Turl Street. Maggie explained to me a few days ago that each professor is affiliated with a specific Oxford college, where they have an office and often teach undergraduates. Lincoln is where Jamie Davenport hangs his skinny jeans.

After making a right on Turl from the High, I step through a cutout door in a wooden gate and into a small portico. Beyond the portico’s flagstones is a manicured quad surrounded on all sides by ivy-covered buildings. The college is smaller than Magdalen, but quaintly elegant and feels older (if that’s possible). I go into the lodge, ask the porter for Professor Davenport’s office and he directs me to staircase eight, off Chapel Quad, and up two flights of stairs.

Near the second-floor landing, I hear raised voices coming from behind a closed door. I stop climbing. Forgetting my nervousness for a moment, I find myself eavesdropping. Two men. One of them, I realize, is Jamie Davenport.

“I’m not interested in your opinion.”

“James, this is absurd—”

“Add it to the list, then.”

“We are your family!” the older voice yells.

“By birth! Nothing more, nothing less,” Davenport shoots back, half as loud but doubly cutting. Then, more muffled, “Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”

“I came to you, in the middle of my workday—”

“Were you asked to come? Leave.”

“You are, without a doubt, the most ungrateful—”

Now Davenport shouts. “Sodding hell, get out!”

I peek around the corner, and seconds later, the arched wooden door flies open and a barrel-chested older man storms through it. He stops and turns back toward the room. I press myself against the wall. “You’re arrogant, my lad, and mark my words, it’s going to be the end of you—”

“Christ, must I throw you out myself?”

“Speak to me as you will, I don’t care, but if you dare hurt your mother any further, I swear—”

“No one can hurt her more than you already have!”

The door slams. From inside or out? I’m about to peek around the corner again when a silver-haired force of nature blows past me down the stairs without so much as a glance. His rage rolls over me like a tangible thing and I grab the banister to steady myself. I wait, holding my breath, trying to be silent. I give it a good ten seconds and then approach the door, knocking softly.

“Yes?” Davenport calls calmly.

I tentatively open the door and poke my head in. He’s standing behind an antique desk, shuffling papers. He appears as if nothing’s amiss. “Hi. Is this a good time?”

I fully expect him to slam the door in my face. He glances up. “Yes, of course. Take a seat.”

I walk into what looks like a parlor in an old English manor. Or at least what movies have led me to believe a parlor in an old English manor looks like. High ceilings partitioned with beams, insets painted in a Tudor pattern. A herringbone wood floor covered by a plush muted red carpet, rough stone walls, paned windows, and a massive stone fireplace. Two well-worn leather club chairs oppose each other in front of the fireplace, and a threadbare red love seat sits behind them. The desk sits in front of a bay window overlooking the quad.

I walk over to a club chair, trying to think of something clever to open with. “This is really nice. Homey,” I say, missing the mark entirely.

He’s still at his desk, riffling through the papers and books strewn there. “Well then, make yourself at home,” he says.

I can’t read his tone. No need to panic, I assure myself. Whatever just happened has nothing to do with me. I’m probably here because he wants to congratulate me on my first paper, or maybe further discuss one of the points I made that’s piqued his curiosity. My being here will probably be good for him. Distract him from whatever that fight was about. Keeping the conversation alive, I say, “Do you live here?”

“No. Although it’s set up for it.” He finally turns, slips out from between the desk and chair, and crosses over to me. He’s wearing a tucked-in charcoal-gray button-down with the sleeves pushed back to his elbows, and oxblood-colored pants that appear to be—can that be right?—velvet. The weirder thing? He looks incredible in them.

He’s speaking. “Historically, teaching contracts here provided accommodations, as most of the lecturers were clergy. Or had to leave if they got married. Couldn’t have a fellowship and a wife. God forbid she proved too distracting.”

   
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