Home > My Oxford Year(15)

My Oxford Year(15)
Author: Julia Whelan

“And it cut public school funding? Gutted the arts?”

“Among many other things, yes.”

“Because . . . ?”

“It stipulated that the maximum amount of any ad valorem tax on real property could not exceed one percent of the full cash value—”

“English.”

“Okay. Property taxes, which largely fund public education, can only increase at an annual inflation factor not to exceed two percent based on 1975 assessments—”

“Durran! Cut to the chase! Pretend I’m stupid.”

I take a moment. “Who mostly goes to public schools in the U.S.?”

“The poor and minorities.”

“Who pays property taxes?”

“People who own houses.”

“Statistically, who owns all those houses?”

“Not poor minorities?”

“You win the washer/dryer. California, the state with the most expensive housing markets, has a public school system consistently ranked well below my home state of Ohio.”

“Thanks, kid,” Gavin says, and, per usual, hangs up without actually saying good-bye. I see a few are you all right??? texts from Maggie and Charlie and answer them in the affirmative (without details like current location or company) and then enter the pub.

The interior of the place feels like any dive bar back in the States. Granted, there are the ever-present low ceilings and beams, and ancient, uneven floors, but there’s neon, and darts, and even a jukebox. The plaster walls are stained yellow with nicotine from centuries of cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. It looks as though the layers could be scraped off with a putty knife.

He’s sitting at a booth next to the bar, and—surprise, surprise—a waitress has her arms around him, planting kisses all over his face. Undaunted, I walk over and slip in opposite him. The waitress—who I now see is middle-aged with spiky bottle-red and gray hair—turns to me and says, “Sorry, love, but he’s spoke fer.”

A potbellied, cow-necked guy pulling pints behind the bar calls out, “I heard that, Lizzie!”

“I weren’t whisperin’, Bernard!” she yells back. They share a laugh as she scuttles away.

I set my phone down on the sticky table, opposite his. Their presence makes this feel less like a date. Which is good. He points to my phone. “Everything all right?” he asks.

I take a breath and quickly fill him in. Talking about my job gives me confidence. About everything. His impressed, wide-eyed nod also helps. See? Not a total disaster after all, prat.

Just as I wrap up, Lizzie appears again, this time with a tray. “Here we are!” she sings, dropping everything off, then leaves.

I take in the haul on the table: two pints, a small bucket of bulk popcorn, and a basket of tortilla chips with a little plastic container of salsa. I stare at the array. The song changes to Nicki Minaj. “Give me a moment,” I say. “I need to let the authenticity wash over me.”

He grins and lifts his glass. “Welcome to England.” I lift my (insanely heavy) glass and clink his.

Then there’s a funny moment of silence. Which is unexpected. He takes a sip of his beer, and I take a sip of mine. He studies my face, gauging my reaction. “Well?”

It’s not carbonated, it’s room temperature, and it’s really, really bitter. “Disgusting” is the first word that comes to mind. I venture in for another sip. It’s weird, I don’t like it, but I like it. I don’t want any more, but I wouldn’t mind another sip. The beer, I remind myself. Not the man sitting across from you. Finally, I answer him. “For pond scum, it’s absolutely delicious.”

He throws his head back and laughs. He’s got a hearty laugh. I like that.

I grab a chip and open the salsa container, settling in, already glad I did this. “So,” I begin. “How did you find yourself at Oxford?”

Just then, a lanky teenager sidles up to the table, smiling. “Had to dig it out the back,” he says, dropping off a half-filled bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. “Nobody’s had a drop of the stuff since you left. See the pen line? Not a millimeter down.”

Jamie slaps the kid’s shoulder, gazing in wonder at the whiskey. “Cheers, Ricky. Grab yourself a glass, mate.”

He’s already pulling one out of his apron. “Couldn’t possibly.”

Jamie pours them a healthy shot. “Don’t tell your mum, yeah?”

“Who?” They clink glasses and shoot them. Ricky turns to me. “And this lovely is . . . ?”

I jump ahead of Davenport. “Ella. It’s a pleasure.”

“Pleasure’s all mine.” Something silent passes between Jamie and Ricky. The kid looks away. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Welcome back, JD Cheers.”

Jamie pours two shot glasses and nudges one over to me. I raise my eyebrow.

“An insurance policy against the ale,” he admits. “Are you game?”

I pick up the glass. “I’m Irish.”

He holds his up. “To being a credit to your race.”

“Slainte,” I say, and we clink glasses, splashes of whiskey coating our fingers. We belt it back. It’s dangerously smooth. I wipe my mouth and watch him lick the knuckle of his pointer finger.

I should not be drinking with him.

“So,” I say through the whiskey heat in my chest, “you did your undergrad here?”

“I did.”

“Which college?”

“Christ Church.”

I pop another chip in my mouth. “Fancy.”

He shakes his head. “She’s been here less than a week, but she knows Christ Church is fancy. I think it’s evolved somewhat, but when I was there it was all sons of peers and grandsons of knights, that sort of thing.”

I have to ask. “That’s not you?”

He takes a sip of his beer, then says, “Lincoln is much more to my liking.”

That was a bit slippery, but I let it go. “And you did your master’s at Oxford, too?”

“At New College. Which isn’t really ‘new,’ you know. I reckon it was the ninth college built at Oxford. It was just new at the time.”

I can’t help ribbing him. “Fascinating, Professor.”

He shakes his head, takes the whiskey bottle, and fills our shot glasses again. “We should clear that up. I’m not a professor,” he says.

“Fine, teaching assistant.” We pick up our shots, clink, say “slainte” again, and belt them back.

“Nor that,” he says. “I’m a junior research fellow, which means I’ve finished my DPhil—or PhD, as you would say—and I’m in my first year of a three-year postdoc funded by Lincoln. I’m rewriting—” He’s interrupted by the ring of his cell phone. I glance down and see “Dad” on the screen. He silences it.

“It’s okay if you want to take that.”

“It can go to voice mail. Anyway, I’m rewriting my dissertation. Making it less an academic defense and more suited for research consumption. Perhaps even readable by the general public. Though let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he says, with a self-deprecating smile.

I return his smile. “And the teaching is part of it?”

“Yes,” he says, reaching for a chip. “Originally just undergrads. This,” he says, gesturing between us with his chip, indicating his teaching of graduate students, “has only happened due to circumstance. Styan is my mentor, which means she gives me an hour a month of her time and feedback on my dissertation. There was a bit of a palaver in the faculty a week ago, and Styan was asked to pop over to admin, so . . . here we are.”

Here we are.

“Do you want to teach?” he asks. He reads the confusion on my face like a book. “Well, The Atlantic article. And when you said you were an education consultant—”

“Education policy,” I clarify. “My background is strictly political. I started out working campaigns. Learned the ropes. But I always had the larger goal of wanting to change our education system.”

“Is that all?” His tone is playfully sarcastic; he’s probably too cynical for this American idealism. Nevertheless, he seems interested. “And how would you do that?”

“I’m glad you ask,” I reply, with my own version of playful sarcasm. “To start, arts programs would be well funded. The research is incontrovertible. It all comes down to test scores, you know? Right or wrong, all anyone cares about is test scores. Well, fact: districts with robust arts programs also have the highest test scores.”

“Really?”

“Really. And in districts with integrated arts programs—meaning incorporating music, art, dance, what have you, into the way we teach math and science—the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students effectively closes.”

“Well, it makes sense. After all, a wise man once said, ‘Don’t think . . . feel.’ Who was that?”

I shrug. “Some posh prat.” He chuckles. I take a sip of beer. “So, what’s your, like, title?”

“Posh Prat.” I laugh, and he smiles. “Technically, Doctor.”

I raise one brow. “Dr. Davenport?”

“Sexy, innit?” he mocks, eyes twinkling.

I take another sip of my beer, which tastes pretty damn good now, and I notice, as if by magic, our shot glasses are filled again. How did he do that? We lift them up. “Slainte.” We don’t stop looking at each other as we shoot. He breaks eye contact only to hold his nearly empty pint glass and two fingers up to Bernard, who nods.

“So, where did you become Dr. Davenport?” I ask.

“The Other Place,” he answers, grabbing a handful of popcorn.

“Where?”

“Sorry, that’s what we call Cambridge. I’m just back, actually. Feel like a fresher again.”

A scrawny, tattooed girl with platinum-blond hair and an unlit cigarette in her mouth appears at our table, crying “Well, loo’ who’s back from the bloomin’ dead!” and bends over Jamie, kissing him on both cheeks, asking him where he’s been. She keeps touching his arm, running her hand up and down his sleeve. Lizzie arrives with our beers and chases the girl off—“Cain’t ya see he’s busy?”—but not before Jamie asks her to say hello to her sister for him.

   
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