Home > My Oxford Year(16)

My Oxford Year(16)
Author: Julia Whelan

He looks back to me, the picture of innocence.

“So this reputation of yours.”

He practically leaps forward, elbows on the table. “Yes, this reputation of mine. What, exactly, have you heard? I’m fascinated.”

I demur, shrugging. He counters by pushing a pint glass at me. I take a sip, drawing the moment out. “Well. For instance. I heard you have a three-date rule.”

“A what?”

I give him an as-if-you-don’t-know look. He gazes over the rim of his pint at me, truly clueless. “If a girl doesn’t sleep with you after three dates, you never see her again.”

He digs a chip into the salsa. “And if I have sex with her on the first date, am I obliged to have two more?”

I shake my head slowly, disapprovingly, teasingly. He grins. Then he relents, shrugging. “All right, yes, it’s probably true that I stop seeing most women after three dates, but not because they won’t have sex with me.”

“Then why?”

He sucks a tooth, looking contemplative. “Because I’m no longer interested.”

“And how do you know you’re not interested?”

He levels a look at me, a wry, drowsy-lidded look. “I’ve a feeling you’re one of those people who finishes every book she starts.”

“You’re not?”

“If you know how a book is going to end, why keep on with it?”

“If you don’t open yourself up to life, how can you ever be surprised?” I say, quoting him back at him, doing an awful, tipsy imitation of his accent in the process. “And if you’re not surprised, what’s the bloody point?”

“I would love to be surprised. Alas, very few people manage to do so, in the end.” He gazes at me, a challenge in his eyes. “I would reckon you feel the same way, actually.”

He’s not wrong.

There’s a moment of silence and we both go for a chip, having reached that comfortable point of synchronization. Reflexively, I pull my hand away. He looks up at me, motioning to the chip basket, but for some reason I can’t hold his eye right now. I look past him. Behind Davenport, attached to one end of the bar, is a freestanding, wood-paneled box of a room with frosted windows. Its closed door faces me. “Hey, what’s that?” I ask, nodding my head in its direction.

He doesn’t even look. “That’s a snug.” Off my blank look, he explains, “A snug was for people who didn’t want to be seen drinking in a public house. Aristocracy passing through, the village vicar. Women. Young lovers. Grab your pint.” I do, he stands, and I follow. Then a phone rings and I realize I left mine on the table. I go back to grab it and see that Jamie’s is the one ringing. “Dad” again. “It’s you,” I say, picking it up and handing it over. He takes it, but doesn’t even glance down, just silences it, and opens the door to the snug. He stands aside and gestures me in.

I step around him, entering the little room, no bigger than a large midwestern pantry. Just enough room for a rectangular table and plank seating. Jamie enters behind me and knocks on a panel of wood with a small knob attached. It slides open, offering direct access to the bar. Bernard’s face looms through, framed like an old English portrait. “What can I get you?” he growls.

Jamie holds up his half-full pint. “Cheers, mate. Just showing Ella the snug.”

Bernard rolls his eyes and slides the panel closed with comical force.

“I love you!” Jamie calls.

“But you’ll never have me,” we hear distantly. We share a chuckle and I slide onto the bench on one side of the table. Jamie closes the door to the snug. The noise of the bar dims and we’re left in relative silence.

Jamie settles in across from me. It’s so quiet I can hear his breathing. The shush-shush of his velvet trousers as he crosses his legs. The snug’s forced intimacy feels like a challenge somehow. Suddenly, in unison, we both say, “Can I ask you something?”

We share an awkward laugh. I sit back. “Go ahead.”

He sits back, too. “I’m rather curious. You’re going to run the world. Why are you here?”

I swallow. “I got a Rhodes.”

“That’s it?”

I shrug. “I mean, it’s Oxford. Who says no to that?” Even to my ear, this sounds glib. Callous. Calculating. I can tell he’s about to challenge me further, so I add, “Can’t have a more recognizable name on your résumé. It’s a network.” Which also sounds horrible, and somehow like a betrayal of my childhood dream. I take a breath and say, before he can reply, “I also made a promise to myself—a plan—when I was thirteen. To come to Oxford.”

He nods like this is the answer he was seeking, as if this one—the romantic childhood notion—is the reasonable and plausible explanation. I just hope he’s not inclined to ask why I promised myself. Luckily, he isn’t. But he does ask, “Why literature, though? Wouldn’t PPE have been a better option?” PPE. Philosophy, politics, and economics. What every politico studies here.

“Probably,” I answer truthfully, continuing to sip my beer. “But why do what I’ve already done? At Georgetown. In life.” Then, before I can stop it, “Besides, I wanted a year of . . . of beauty, I guess. A year of humanity’s better nature.” I cringe. “Sorry, that sounds corny. I’ve never said it out loud before.”

He shakes his head adamantly. “It’s admirable. Not corny.” His overpronunciation of the word betrays his unfamiliarity with it and in that moment I find him so disarmingly attractive that my mouth goes dry. He stares at me.

I look away. “My turn.” But now I hesitate, unsure I want to ask him this after all. But then he says, “Please,” in that voice of his and it just falls out of me. “Why don’t you read the whole book? I mean, aren’t you even the least bit curious? There’s more to sex than sex, right?”

He studies me even more intently. I look down at the almost empty pint glass in front of me. I’ve lost count. I push it away, then blurt, “I’m not a prude, you know.”

“I didn’t think you were,” he murmurs, as if he’s thought about this. Thought about me. “Not having your heart broken and not being a prude aren’t the same thing, are they?”

Exactly. I want to say this out loud, but I can’t find my voice. See, this is what happens when you drink too much. You end up in a snug having an obtuse conversation with your tutor about sex you can only half follow.

He pauses, almost drains his beer. A lazy smile crosses his face. “We’ve a saying in the English faculty. Sex is literature, literature is sex.”

“Metaphorically?”

“Elementally. If you’re reading something, and you ask yourself, is this about sex, the answer’s yes. It’s always yes. Because everything is sex and sex is everything. It’s love, and lust, and intimacy, yes, but it’s also power, and violence, and domination. Hell, it’s creation. Genesis. The beginning of everything.”

“The big bang.”

He laughs, then continues. “It’s the nexus of the human experience. Therefore it’s at the root of everything man has ever written. I think we sometimes have to remind ourselves of that. We get so consumed with digging down, burrowing into the prose, that we forget what the story’s actually about.”

“Sex.”

He tips his glass to me like it’s a fedora in a 1940s movie and finishes his last swallow.

He sets it back down and faces me with a satisfied smile. About what I’m not sure. We sit in silence. The bar has grown quiet, the snug warm. Jamie’s gone still, watching me. I open my mouth, but Jamie’s phone rings once again. I glance down, expecting to see “Dad.” It reads “Mum.”

Jamie’s jaw clenches. “Damn him.”

“I can wait outside.”

“No, absolutely not.” This time, he shuts his phone off and puts it in his jacket pocket. “Trust me, it’s nothing pressing. Just bothersome.”

We look at each other. For too long.

I check my watch. “I need to go.”

He stands abruptly. “Right. You have a thing tomorrow.”

“Yes. Right.” I stand, too. I pick up my phone, happy that Gavin has stayed away. “What do I owe you?”

He looks scandalized. “Oh God, nothing.” I open my mouth to argue. “They never let me pay, it’s family here.”

I’m sure he’s lying, but I’d rather not delay this exit any further. So I pick up my pint glass and ask, “Do we just leave it or—”

Jamie takes it from me, his fingers interlacing with mine. “I’ve got it.” It takes me a second to release the glass.

We leave the snug and the cool air of the pub refreshes me. Jamie drops our glassware off at the counter and I wave to Lizzie and Bernard and Ricky. This place was perfect. I’ll definitely be back. If I can ever find it again, that is. I move toward the exit and hear, “I’ll walk out with you.” He catches up to me.

I stop with my hand on the door handle. “Oh, you don’t have to leave.”

“I have a thing tomorrow as well.” I risk a glance at him. He must see the doubt on my face. “Truly. I have an early lecture. My days of going to lectures still drunk are long over, I’m afraid.” He gives me a wry grin and I push open the door.

It’s still drizzling and the street is empty. Jamie approaches the curb and turns to face oncoming traffic, searching for headlights, for the boxy black body of an encroaching cab.

“What’s it on?” I ask, testing him.

“Sorry?”

“Your lecture. Tomorrow?”

“Oh, you know.” He sighs. “Tennyson. He’s my subject.” He pops his hand into the air as a cab continues past us.

“Why Tennyson?” I ask. “Why not, I don’t know . . . Byron? Keats? Shelley?”

   
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