Home > My Oxford Year(18)

My Oxford Year(18)
Author: Julia Whelan

A bored-looking woman propped on a stool by the door scans my college ID card and I enter Hall, which feels like a rite of passage. I force myself to keep walking and not stop in the doorway, gawking like a tourist. It’s stunning. Soaring Gothic ceilings, flying buttresses, dark wood paneling, and three room-long tables with benches. At the front of the hall, on a dais, another table sits perpendicular to all the others, clearly reserved for invited guests. No one sits there yet, but the other three tables have begun to fill in with students. Despite my gobsmacked rubbernecking, I see Maggie waving from the front of one table. I wave back and hustle down the nearest aisle, taking in the white flatware, sparkling crystal, and three-pronged candlesticks.

Maggie, gown over a vintage green sweater with cartoon owls on it, pats the seat next to her and I sit down, kissing her on the cheek. Charlie and Tom sit across from me smiling welcomingly.

“This is incredible,” I say reverently, still looking around the room. “Why haven’t we come here for dinner before?”

“Because the food’s largely inedible,” Charlie answers. “You must check the carte in advance. Only for lasagna do we make an effort.”

Maggie touches my hand. “How are you?”

“Fine.”

“Even after last night?”

I freeze. I don’t allow my voice to have even the slightest tremor, my tone nothing more than inquisitive. “Last night?” I flick my eyes lightning quick to Tom and Charlie.

Charlie leans in. “Arse-Face Ian didn’t ruin your night?”

“Oh!” I nearly chortle. I pour myself a generous glass of wine from the bottle they have open before them. “Completely forgotten.”

Maggie sighs in relief. “Brilliant. We were ever so worried.” Tom and Charlie nod in unison.

Charlie adds, “Ridley and Ahmed took him home after forcibly hydrating him for an hour.”

“Ridley!” I cry. “How did things go with Row Boy? Does he paddle in the same current?” I waggle my eyebrows at Charlie and take a sip of wine.

“That remains to be seen. At present, he wants to see me cox.” I choke on my wine slightly. Charlie squints witheringly at me and says laconically, “Coxswain, darling. The tiny loudmouthed wanker who sits in the front of the boat and yells at the rowers?” He downs the rest of his wine and pours more. “Anyway. Were you completely put off or did you venture forth in search of other diversions?”

Everyone in the room suddenly stops talking and stands up. Maggie, Charlie, and Tom leap to their feet and stand stock-still, like soldiers waiting to be inspected. Instead of asking what the hell is happening, I decide to follow suit and ask questions later. After a moment, a procession of people, in much fancier gowns than ours, walks down the center aisle. They are mostly older and distinguished-looking, except for one head of mussed brown hair that—

What is he doing here? This isn’t his college. He doesn’t see me, but I keep my eyes on him, wondering, in some irrational part of my brain, if he planned this. If he’s trying to see me again.

The procession gathers at the front table, the “important” table. Then, from the back, a deep voice starts speaking quickly but purposefully in Latin, and everyone dips chins to chests and closes their eyes. The prayer is long. So long, in fact, that I can’t help but open my eyes ever so slightly. His beautiful head is bowed in prayer, but his eyes are open, staring down at the table in front of him, the slightest smile on his lips.

The prayer over, everyone takes their seats again and the din of chatter resumes. I risk another glance and see Jamie talking with the woman on his right. She’s laughing.

“So,” Charlie says, and I snap my attention back to him. “Last night?”

“Oh, I just went home. Got some sleep. I really needed it.”

I’m saved by the arrival of food. Servers descend upon us, dropping off plates. My eyes move to the front table again. Jamie pours the woman next to him some wine. Turning back, I find a plate of little fishes staring up at me accusingly. Anchovies. Whole anchovies. With the heads still on. “They still have eyes,” I murmur.

Tom, already digging in, nods happily. “Best part!”

I slide my plate over to him. “I’ll wait for the lasagna.”

“You were saying something about needing it?” Charlie prods.

“Yeah! I was exhausted. Probably adrenaline or something.” I don’t know for sure if what happened last night is supposed to be a secret, I’m just assuming Jamie wouldn’t want his students to know he slept with one of them. But Charlie’s far too perceptive. He’s a bloodhound. If there’s the faintest scent of scandal in the room, Charlie will sniff it out.

He sips his wine. “Did you not hear that catlike screeching in the wee hours?”

The lasagna arrives and I dig in, buying myself some time. “Uh, no.”

“No? It sounded as if it were being mauled right outside our windows. Maybe it was just in heat.”

Unbidden, my eyes flit to Jamie yet again as I take a significant swallow of my wine. He’s still in conversation with the woman on his right. He hasn’t seen me yet. Which is good. It would probably be awkward. For him.

“Did it sound something like this, by chance?” Tom asks, and then proceeds to make the most ungodly screech, a cross between a cat, a siren, and peeling tires. It’s ungodly loud, too, drawing attention to our table. I quickly pivot away from Jamie’s sight line.

Maggie, suppressing a laugh, slaps Tom on the shoulder. “Tom! We’re in Hall. Show some decorum, for God’s sake.”

Tom, oblivious, looks to Charlie and me for confirmation. “Mountain lion?”

“Perhaps it was the Magdalen Bridge troll,” Charlie drawls. “Perhaps he found his larder bare of children and made a dash to Sainsbury’s.”

Tom shakes his head, licking his fork. “Trolls don’t eat children. That’s witches.” I smile. I could listen to Tom being Tom for hours. I’m also relieved to have the focus off of me for the moment. The servers come back and grab our semi-empty plates. “Excuse me?” Tom asks one of them. “What’s the pudding tonight?”

“Custard,” she answers unexcitedly, already leaving.

“I’m well shot of it,” Tom says, tossing his napkin on the table. “I could do with some chips, cheese, and beans, actually. I’m starved.”

“I have chocolate,” Maggie suggests. “My dad just returned from Brussels. Shall I go get it?”

“Do.” Charlie jumps in. “Tom, get your coronary special from the kebab van and we’ll all meet back at mine. Oh, and bring your Scotch, will you, Maggie? We shall have a proper night in.” He smiles at me. “Ella? Will you join? After all, you’ve had plenty of rest. Got what you needed and all that.”

“It’s a plan!” I say, smiling back.

As we stand, Charlie pauses and drops his head to the side, gazing at the table as though it were a reflecting pool. “There was something else,” he mutters. “Something I wanted to—Maggie, some help. Do you recall?” He looks at Maggie. “Oh, come, I said we mustn’t forget to tell Ella.”

Maggie squints. “Tom, do you recall? I’m sure I told you to remind me.”

Tom puts his hands on his hips and looks up at the ceiling. “Bugger and blast, what was it? Wait! Might it have something to do with poetry?”

Charlie snaps his fingers. “Got it.” He looks at me. “I saw Davenport today.”

“Yes, that was it!” Maggie cries.

“Bang on!” Tom exclaims.

I swallow. “Oh yeah? When?”

“This morning, actually. But where?” Charlie turns his gaze contemplatively to the ceiling now. “Ah, right.” He drops his gaze levelly on me. “On our staircase landing.”

I move to say something.

“Coming out of your room.”

I freeze.

“Still wearing those velvet trousers.”

My mouth drops open. Charlie, Maggie, and Tom are grinning like three cats that ate all the canaries. Charlie reaches over and taps his finger under my chin, closing my mouth. “Careful, darling. You wouldn’t want to catch a foot in there, now, would you?”

They erupt in cackles. Maggie, at least, looks slightly repentant, her hands covering her laughing mouth as she says, “Sorry,” but Tom fairly bounces down the aisle, hopping and spinning about on one foot, an uncoordinated Pied Piper. Charlie simply strolls out, his jacket draped casually over one shoulder, the very posture of self-satisfaction.

I can’t tell which feeling is stronger: my mortification, or the relief that it’s out in the open. I take a fortifying breath, glancing once more at the front table.

Jamie is looking directly at me while everyone stands up. He wipes his mouth, shakes someone’s hand, and catches my eye again as he stands. He points covertly in the direction of the door. I nod.

I take a bracing gulp of my wine, then, before following everyone out, decide to finish it.

I STEP OUT of Hall and Jamie magically appears next to me. Barely touching my elbow, he guides me to a closed door marked BUTTERY. He opens it and sweeps me inside, closing the door quickly behind us. Cupboards and shelves are filled with glassware and other dining paraphernalia; napkin rings, candlesticks, saltshakers. It smells like a laundry room.

“Hi,” he says quietly.

“Hi,” I reply. “What are you doing here?”

He sighs, says in a rush, “Styan forgot she’d accepted an invitation to High Table, I stepped in. Ella listen . . .” He holds up a hand, looks me dead in the eye. “Last night was exhilarating. And surprising. Truly. All of it. I haven’t had that much fun in the devil of a long time and I didn’t adequately convey that this morning.” This comes out in one breath and with unblinking eyes. Then he disconnects, glancing around the pantry as if mentally selecting glassware for a dinner party. Finally he says, “Forgive my bluntness, but—”

   
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