Home > My Oxford Year(17)

My Oxford Year(17)
Author: Julia Whelan

Jamie raises a shoulder. “I’m not a Romantic.”

There’s stillness between us. “Tell me about him. Tennyson. The man.”

He seems relieved to speak of something other than himself. “Well, let’s see. Fourth child in a family of twelve. Daddy issues. Went to Cambridge, wrote poetry, found acclaim, wore a sombrero and cape.”

“Sounds colorful.”

“But he was a complicated, difficult man. He suffered a trauma in his early twenties. His best friend, Arthur Hallam, died.” Jamie rolls his eyes. “Best friend. That’s an inadequate designation. They were more like . . .”

“Brothers?”

Jamie shakes his head. “He had brothers.”

“Lovers?”

“Some say. I never found proof. I think it’s a convenience for people who can’t understand the depth of their connection. The loss of a platonic love doesn’t bring one to one’s knees for almost two decades. It doesn’t keep one from living one’s life, shutting people out, writing almost exclusively about death and grief for seventeen years. Damn cabbies!” Another one whizzes past his outstretched hand.

“Should we just walk? I can handle the rain.”

“It’s much too far. I’ll get one for you soon enough.” I want to say, What if I don’t want one? But I don’t. Happily, he continues.

“Tennyson didn’t even marry until he was forty-one, and when he did, it was to the woman he’d been engaged to when Hallam died. The woman who Hallam had thought would be good for him. They had two sons. And, of course, named the eldest Hallam.” Jamie’s hand pops into the air yet again, but another cab, full to overflowing with rowdy students, sails past. He looks at me. “Do you mind if we share a taxi? It’s enough of a challenge to get one, let alone two.”

“Sure.” I shrug. “So what’s your work on, specifically?” No longer just making conversation, I’m enjoying the conversation.

“My dissertation was on In Memoriam, the grief poems. I was looking at one of Tennyson’s rather specific physical details and how it might have affected his poetry.”

“Which was?”

“He was dreadfully nearsighted. Couldn’t see more than three feet in front of him without a monocle. So I was exploring the fact that his poetic descriptions tend to veer to either the micro- or macrocosm of existence. There’s very little middle ground with him. It’s either the veining on a particular flower petal or the, you know, universal suffering of death . . .” Jamie drifts off and steps boldly out into the street. “Oh, come on!” he shouts as a cab arcs around him. I can’t help but smile at the contradiction of academics. He can discuss the minutiae of his research after however-many-shots and two pints but the act of hailing a cab proves too difficult.

Jamie sighs, coming back onto the sidewalk, and continues, barely skipping a beat. “Even his last words. You see this writ large. On his deathbed, right before he fell into unconsciousness, he said, ‘Hallam. Hallam.’ Now, which Hallam was he referring to? Was he calling out to the other side, the spiritual plane of existence? Or was he merely asking for his son? Was it the Hallam he was leaving or the Hallam he was joining?”

“Is it possible that he was calling to both?”

“Point taken. But I’d like to think the latter. When you feel more than you can say, when words fail you, when syntax and grammar and well-constructed expressions are choked from your mind and all that’s left is raw feeling, a few broken words come forth. I’d like to believe those words, when everything’s stripped away, might be the key to it all. The meaning of life. I’d like to think it’s possible to remain so devoted to someone’s memory that fifty-nine years later, when all the noise of life is muted, the last gasp passing over your lips is that person’s name.” Jamie looks at me. I just stare at him. “What?”

“And you’re not a Romantic.”

He smiles at me. I smile back. I imagine him kissing me. Not asking to, just doing it. Compelled.

The beep of a horn startles us both. We spin to find a black cab waiting patiently for us.

I sense a moment of regret in Jamie as he looks away from me and moves toward the cab. He says, to the cabbie, “Magdalen first, then up Norham Gardens way.” Blame the alcohol, but this moment seems to lengthen, as if I’m consciously making a memory. I leisurely watch his back as he opens the door under the misty glow of the antique streetlamp, his damp hair curling against the wool collar of his coat, his broad shoulders and tapered waist, the clacking heel of a well-made brogue pivoting on the wet pavement as he turns back. I look up to find his eyes on me, his hand outstretched. “Shall we?”

Chapter 11

A man had given all other bliss,

And all his worldly worth for this

To waste his whole heart in one kiss

Upon her perfect lips.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere,” 1842

Mornin’ to ya, lass!”

I hear a woman’s voice. Why do I hear a woman’s voice? Am I dreaming? I must be dreaming.

“So tidy, y’are! It wouldn’t knock a bother off ya to leave me something to do?”

My eyes pop open and I bolt upright, way too quick for my head’s sake. “Eugenia,” I say around the frog in my throat. The trusty scout moves through the room, muttering as I try to wake up. My blurry eyes begin to clear and I look down.

I’m naked.

I snatch the sheet to my chest.

Okay. Don’t panic. Piece it together. Bar. Snug. Taxi. Then, nothing. Nothing happened. Right?

Eugenia opens my bathroom door. “Morning.”

Not Eugenia’s voice.

The honeyed tone kick-starts my memory. Something definitely happened. Images from last night roll over me. Nice images. Very nice images.

“Mornin’, love,” Eugenia sings. “Anythin’ in the bin?”

“Not a whit,” he answers easily.

Eugenia sighs. “S’as if the wee miss don’t e’en live here.” She bustles out of the bathroom, gives me a conspiratorial wink, and leaves.

I prepare myself for the impending awkwardness. Hey, at least he didn’t leave before I woke up. I open my mouth to say something, anything, when I hear from the bathroom, “If you put your bin outside your door they won’t come in.”

“Like a sock on the doorknob?” I croak.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Sorry, I would have given you a stir but you were sleeping so peacefully.” He walks out of the bathroom and it all seems so oddly normal. Oh, nothing, just Jamie Davenport coming out of my bathroom wearing the clothes he was wearing yesterday, velvet trousers and all. God, was the tutorial only yesterday?

Rallying, I clear my throat. “How is Dr. Davenport this morning?”

He rolls down his sleeves and buttons the cuffs. “Good. Fine. Quite good, actually.”

Relieved, I exhale. “Great. Me too.”

Mutely, he slips on his jacket. Pulls a hand through his hair. He reaches for the doorknob, but turns back to me. “Sorry, I really must run. That lecture.”

“Of course,” I say breezily.

He turns back to the door, placing his hand on the knob. He turns back to me once again and says, looking at the floor, “Ella, I want to explain something to you—”

I cut him off at the pass. “Students are off-limits?”

He pauses. “Actually, technically no.” He looks up and grins at me. “Unlike some, Britain is not a nation of Puritans when it comes to matters of carnality between two consenting adults.”

I smile at him. “You’re not looking for a relationship?”

He takes a step back into my room, sighing. “That would be it. Quite.”

I clutch the sheet to my chest and leap irately out of bed. “How dare you!” I cry. “I thought you liked me! I thought we had something real! You’re just like all the others!”

Jamie pales, puts his hands out like he’s stopping traffic. “Oh dear God, please,” he effuses. “In no way did—do—I wish to make you feel—”

I can’t keep it up. I burst out laughing. “You should see your face!” Jamie blinks, finally realizing that I’m joking. He tries to chuckle, but it sounds more like he’s being strangled. Maybe we don’t know each other well enough for morning-after humor. “Don’t worry,” I assure him. “Really. I don’t want to be in a relationship either.” Then, for reasons unclear to me, I drop the sheet. Naked, I reach for the panties that have made their way to the back of my desk chair.

“Well,” Jamie breathes. “Brilliant. Glad we’re on the . . .” I bend over and pick up my bra. “The same page.”

“Totally,” I say, knotting my hair on top of my head.

“I shouldn’t like to have anything of a mess between us.”

“Done.”

He nods stiffly and turns back to the all-too-familiar doorknob. He pauses and says, to the door, “See you in class.”

He leaves.

I refuse to feel disappointed.

RAGING HANGOVER ASIDE, I definitely have an extra spring in my step all day. In fact, it’s impossible for me to sit still long enough to get any work done, so eventually I give up and walk around town for a few hours, hungrily absorbing the sights, sounds, scents, and textures like a bear coming out of a long, soul-deep hibernation. On Cornmarket, I amble from one busking musician to the next, tossing a quid into their open instrument cases, enjoying the variety, the internationalism. The guy with the sitar. The blues guitarist. The flautist doing Mozart. The Afro-Caribbean drummer. They’re all at home here.

It’s starting to feel like home to me, too.

My phone buzzes with a text from Charlie.

Hall for dinner at 7. Don’t be late. Academic gown required.

I still haven’t bought a gown (which is more like a sleeveless black vest with tails off the shoulders). Hugh had mentioned I could get one on Turl, so I walk over, and locate the shop right across the street from the Lincoln College gates. Jamie’s gates. I find myself glancing out the lead-paned windows as the shopkeeper rings me up and I can’t tell if I’m disappointed or relieved when I don’t see him. I head back to Magdalen as the city’s church bells start peeling.

   
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