Home > My Oxford Year(14)

My Oxford Year(14)
Author: Julia Whelan

I stare levelly back at her. Her face is a mask. I can’t tell if she’s judging me, if she’s implying something about what she thinks she witnessed between Davenport and me a few hours ago, or if she’s just being her.

“And they can’t drink for shite,” Ian sneers. “The gravest fault of all.”

Charlie perks up. “Then we shall put our dear Ella to the test. Time for one of our infamous British drinking games.” He looks at me, and gives a wink.

I nod, happy to move on from the subject of my Rhodie shortcomings.

“A shame Jamie couldn’t come tonight.” Cecelia sighs. “He so loves a good drinking game.”

Pray tell, “Ce,” what else does he love? Whatever. At least I know he’s not going to suddenly pop out of the bathroom. I can relax.

A hand plops onto my thigh. I jerk, whipping murderous eyes to Ian, who withdraws his hand as if he’s touched a stovetop.

“Sorry! Jus’ trying to get your attention. I have a question for you, an immensely important one. Ready?” He gets serious, even though his eyes are floating in two different directions. “Do you go left or right?”

“What? I don’t—”

“Your political leanings. What are they?”

Here we go.

CHRIST ALMIGHTY, THESE people can drink.

I’m a good drinker, I can hold my own. Still, I’ve had to sit out the last few rounds of Fuzzy Duck (deceptively innocent name) because I need to, you know, not die tonight. Ian, on the other hand, somehow gets drunker. He’ll start talking to me, then forget why he started talking to me, go silent for a few minutes, and then start up again. It’s excruciating. He also creeps closer to me every time he speaks.

Ian aside, I look around the table and find myself smiling. Maggie is red-cheeked and laughing, Tom’s asleep with his head on the table and arms dangling down like a little kid. Cecelia is smiling. Charlie continues to work his magic on Ridley. He’s a master. He’s rigged the game so Rower Boy has to pour the shot into Charlie’s mouth every time he “loses.”

I’m at that place where I either need to drink more or I need to leave. It’s the point-of-no-return portion of the evening.

“You completely misunderstooded me,” Ian exhales onto the side of my face.

He’s referring to the last fragment of conversation he doled out. I answer him in the hopes of shutting him up. “I understooded you perfectly. You’re saying Americans are stupid. I get it.”

“It’s your disdain for intellectualism, your narrow-minded ignorance, your . . . your . . . your—”

Ridley leans across me. “You’re pissed, Ian, go home.”

Ian gets closer to my face, barreling on, “Your obliviousness to the imminent demise of your arrogant empire.”

“Well,” I say before I can stop myself, “if anyone’s an expert on dead empires, it would be you guys.”

While Ridley laughs, Ian takes the comment personally. “And you’ll end up just like us, bloody irrelephant!” The table goes quiet. He seems to sense, through his drunken haze, that he’s misstepped. He tries to regain some dignity by laughing at his malapropism. “Irrelephant! Now you’ve gone and done it, ol’ boy. Tusk, tusk.” He bursts out laughing and everyone relaxes. But then he drops his hand on my shoulder. “Ah, let’s not fight.” His tone turns intimate and he moves closer. “Let’s kiss and make up.” He leans in, and I turn fully to face him, hoping to scare him with my eyes, bracing my back against Ridley’s strong shoulder and arm.

In my deadliest tone, I say, simply, “Don’t.”

He throws his head back and laughs. “Ah, come now, let’s be friends! We love our Yanks here. Don’t we?” he spews to the table. Then, back to me, “Especially a tasty bit like you.” I stare at him, recognition niggling. Tasty bit. Realization hits me: he was the drunk guy from the street the other night. Oi, that’s a tasty bit. Instantly, my skin begins to crawl.

Before I can say something, Ian puts his hand on mine, leans in, and murmurs, “I, especially, love a good . . . Yank.”

Of its own volition, my right hand sails through the air and clocks Ian right on his smug little chin. I was aiming for a push back hit, but it ends up decking him.

Whoops.

The spectators gasp and Ian’s head flops back. I think I knocked him out. Everything freezes. All eyes turn to me. Somebody do something. Somebody say something. Please. Help.

Charlie obliges. “I say, I haven’t seen a right hook like that since Lennox ‘The Lion’ Lewis dropped Rahman in the rematch! Brava!” I have no idea what Charlie is talking about, but it breaks the ice. Everyone suddenly cheers.

“My dad, actually,” I murmur, “taught me how to—I—I’m just gonna . . .” I start crawling over Ian.

Tom’s eyes bug. “Wait. Your dad’s Lennox Lewis?” But I’m up and moving toward the exit.

I hear Maggie sigh behind me. “Lennox Lewis is black, Tom!”

“Well, duh, Mags! I just didn’t know Ella was!”

As Maggie and Charlie start in on him, I push through the front door and out into the night.

Chapter 10

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush,” 1900

It’s drizzling on St. Giles, though I hardly notice it. I don’t notice anything but the pounding of my heart and the sour turn of the beer in my stomach. I don’t even notice that I’m walking in the wrong direction until I’m half a block away. I stop, but I don’t turn around. I just stand there.

What the hell is wrong with me?

I’ve never done something like that before. Hit someone. Yes, he arguably deserved it, that’s not what’s bothering me. I’m bothering me. My reaction. I’ve never been that out of control.

I lean against the brick wall of a chained-up tuckshop, trying to breathe through this adrenaline dump. The cool dampness left by the constant drizzle seeps into my back, a makeshift cold shower. I close my eyes, tilt my head back, and take a very deep, very shaky breath.

I blame the damn tutorial. I feel as if a handful of marbles got knocked out of my grasp and went everywhere. And just as I’m gathering them back up, Asshat Ian comes along and knocks them out of my hand again, scattering them into corners and under furniture.

I feel like I’ve literally lost my marbles.

My anger surges up once again and I release a frustrated growl/grunt/yawp. “Men!”

A close voice answers, “Is that a call to arms?”

My eyes pop open.

Davenport. He’s standing right in front of me, peering at me, looking amused.

“What are you doing here?” I demand, sounding like a scorned girlfriend.

His amusement fades. “Sorry?”

“You weren’t supposed to be here.”

Now he quirks his head at me, a look from him with which I’m already too familiar.

“They’re all in there,” I hasten to explain. “Your friends. My friends. Cecelia’s friends. Cecelia. She’ll be so happy you’re here.” My rambling has a tone.

He smiles again and it’s nothing more than friendly, maybe even a tad pitying, all traces of our earlier meeting gone. It’s like he’s found one of my marbles under his chair and simply hands it back, as if he had nothing to do with knocking it out of my hand in the first place.

“Shall I escort you back in?” he asks.

“No. Thank you,” I say, wanting to look away, at the ground, anywhere else, but I can’t. Every time I see him I end up staring at him. “I’ve had enough for one day. Night. It was my first time in a pub, and there was a lot of drinking. But you should go, because they’re waiting for you.” Then, for reasons unknown to me, I bet the farm. “Especially Cecelia.”

And there’s the quirked head again. “Cecelia and I . . . we’re not together. We’re not a couple.”

Does she know that? I want to ask. But I just shrug. He smiles at me and says, “One can’t have it both ways, you know: a sordid reputation and a doting girlfriend.” Some men manage it, I think, but he moves to the door. Then turns back to me once more, inclining his head at the pub, raising a brow.

I step away. “No, I should go. Really. Good night.”

He won’t stop smiling at me. Before I say something more embarrassing, I turn and walk away.

“Ella!” My name echoes down St. Giles.

I spin around. He’s striding toward me. “Your first time in a pub, did you say?” I nod. He glances down the street, seeming to take stock of where he is. “Well, if you happen to be feeling a bit spontaneous, I’d quite like to introduce you to an authentic local.” He looks back to me. “Local pub, that is. The Eagle and Child is a horrid tourist trap.”

I’m feeling anything but spontaneous. “Oh no, that’s okay.” I back away from him. “Thanks, though.”

“Are you quite sure?” He reaches up, pops the collar of his navy peacoat against the drizzle, and makes me feel like I’m in a movie. “Meet some real folk? Have a proper pint of real ale?” His eyes are bright, his voice a spark igniting kindling.

I back farther away. “I have a thing tomorrow.” I have no thing tomorrow. “But, thanks. Again.”

He isn’t leaving.

I stop walking.

We look at each other.

WE’RE ABOUT TO walk into the pub and my phone goes off. I take a quick glance; it’s Gavin. I turn to tell Davenport that I have to take it, but he’s already signaling that he’ll get us a table. I answer my phone, standing under the dripping eave, my feet sinking into the waterlogged industrial mat.

“What was that thing in California you mentioned in the last call?” Gavin asks.

I know exactly what he’s talking about. “Prop. Thirteen.”

   
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