Home > My Oxford Year(20)

My Oxford Year(20)
Author: Julia Whelan

I give him my hand and he helps me step aboard, supporting my arm as I find something resembling balance. He gestures to the two shallow benches set opposite each other in the center of the punt. Channeling my elementary school ballet training, I attempt a jeté, but go crashing into the bottom of the punt instead, about as graceful as a baby elephant falling into a mud pit. Abandoning all poise and dignity, I crawl to the far bench, right myself, and land unsteadily on the padded seat. I hear Jamie’s slight chuckle.

“Catch.” He tosses me his messenger bag then picks up a long pole lying on the side, thrusts it into the water, and pushes us out into the night.

We float under Magdalen Bridge, and he reaches up with the pole to touch the rough stone underside, pushing us along and out the other end. “Would you be a dear and open the bag?” he asks. “Take out the blanket and unroll it.” I do, and find that a plaid woolen blanket is wrapped around a silver thermos. I hold it up to him, questioning. Jamie smiles. “Were this a summer afternoon, we’d have a pitcher of Pimm’s. We seem to eschew the concept of normality.”

The night is actually quite mild; no rain, no breeze. Jamie slips the pole through the water and gently pushes us forward. He’s watching me, gauging my reaction. I love this. I love everything about this.

Holding his gaze, I stretch my legs out in front of me, scootching down until I’m almost flat on my back on the bottom of the punt, my head settled on the seat. I tilt my head to the side coquettishly and pat the floor of the punt, my intention clear.

A telltale heat brightens Jamie’s eyes. “Let me get us a bit farther out,” he murmurs. “Past the turns. I know a prime spot. Lie back.” He affects a sonorous tone, like the voice in a guided meditation video. “Listen to the water lapping the boat. Lose yourself in the stars.”

I flip over onto my stomach and look out in front of us. Our small river is heading toward a T, where a much larger river, the Isis, flows rapidly in front of Christ Church meadow. The moon shimmers off the wide expanse like a spotlight on a cymbal. I drift with the rhythm, the sloshing of the water, the faint creaking of the boards. Jamie’s dreamy voice cuts through the silence. “In late spring you’ll have to come back and punt properly. Before you go home.”

I notice he doesn’t include himself in this future outing. I don’t turn to look at him.

Just before the Isis, he steers us left down a shallow offshoot, gliding onto the soft, silty bottom of the river. Oak trees stretch their bare, late-autumn limbs over our heads. I flip over as Jamie sets the pole down and crawls in next to me, his warmth seeping into my side as we both gaze up at the crosshatch of branches and stars. Our chests rise and fall in unison, breathing synchronized by some unknown force.

There’s no need to talk, but I do. “Do you ever write poetry?”

“Oh God, no. I don’t create, I appreciate.”

I snort at his rhyme. Our hands find each other, our fingers entwining. My head lazily rolls in his direction. I gaze at his profile. That straight nose, those high cheekbones brushed by errant wisps of hair, that perfect jawline. “You certainly look the part.”

“Yes, well, judging a book by its cover and all that. Striking covers often hide blank pages.”

I playfully nudge his shoulder. “I bet you’d be a natural. Have you ever tried?”

He shakes his head. “The problem is I have standards. I have taste. That’s what a bloody DPhil has got me. I’d feel like a fraud, writing something.” He turns to me. “Do you know how hard it is? Writing good poetry? Condensing the wealth of human emotion into the sparsest of language? There’s an alchemy that eludes me, a distillation. Boiling the content down, down, down until you’re left with liquid gold. It’s what Picasso did with a pen. One perfect, curved line and you have a woman in profile.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t try.”

He sighs. “That’s what being here does to people. Gods live among these spires. I spend my days with Tennyson, and he’s a decent ol’ chap and I learn quite a lot from him. We get on splendidly. But he still intimidates the hell out of me.”

“He’s dead.”

He shakes his head. “We will leave Oxford, we will die. But they remain. They always remain. They are immortal.”

“But, why not you?” He scoffs, turns away from me. “I’m serious. You don’t know until you try. You could be the next Tenny—”

Jamie suddenly reaches over and grabs me, hauling me on top of him. The punt rocks, almost tipping us over. I open my mouth to cry out, but he captures it with his. We lose ourselves in the kiss for a moment, before we both stop and pull back, as if we have something to say. But Jamie doesn’t speak. I stare at his bottom lip and touch it lightly, muttering, for lack of anything more important to say, “Well, I think you’d make a damn fine poet.”

He looks at me, his eyes old yet also innocent somehow. Then kisses me softly. Small kisses landing on different parts of my face like individual raindrops. Then he unceremoniously flips me to the side.

“Hey!” I yelp as the punt rocks.

He grins, sitting upright slightly and fumbling around in the bottom of the punt. He comes up with the thermos. “And now we must try this. My specialty.”

“What is it?” I ask, propping myself up on my elbows.

“Blast poetry, this may very well be what I’m remembered for. Liquid winter,” he says, unscrewing the cap. “I drink this from Bonfire Night bang on through Hilary Term. Try it,” he says, thrusting the thermos at me.

I take it and sniff. Instantly, Pavlovian, my throat tightens and my breathing halts. “What is this?”

“Guess.”

“Chocolate, hot chocolate,” I say quickly, breath still trapped, throat still closing.

“Yes, predominantly, but I’ve added—”

“I don’t want it.” I hold out the thermos.

He takes it quickly. “Oh no, are you allergic?”

“No.”

“Then you simply must.” He pushes it back toward me. “There’s a special twist, you see, which no one . . . Ella? What’s wrong?”

Even though I’ve turned away to look out over the water, I can sense Jamie peering at me. I force myself to breathe and turn back to him. “Nothing.”

Jamie just looks at me. “What is it?”

“It’s just my dad.” I barely get the words out. The second I do I want to take them back. I look out at the water. In my peripheral, I can see Jamie’s brow furrowing. “It’s not a big deal,” I assure him. “Really.”

He’s not buying it. “Tell me.”

“It’s not important.”

“At least assure me that he’s not on his way here to flatten me for taking advantage of his baby girl.”

He succeeds in lightening the moment. We share a gentle laugh and I say, “No, you’re safe, he’s dead.”

I can’t believe I said it like that. We’re both stunned into silence for a moment.

“Is that so?” Jamie asks quietly. All I can do is nod. He slides down onto his back, nestling in next to me. I join him, coming off my elbows and resting my head on the bench. Finally, Jamie speaks. “What was he like?”

I haven’t heard this tone from him before. It’s disconcerting; it’s not sexual, or playful, or arch. It’s comforting. It’s the wool blanket he wrapped around the thermos. It’s also different from anyone else who finds out my father died. The first question is always “How did he die?” Jamie wants to know how he lived. “He was the best,” I say simply. “I know every little girl thinks that about her dad, but mine really was. He was funny and handsome and he had this energy and I was his partner in crime.” The words come easily. Surprising. “He always said that waiting for me to learn how to talk was like waiting for his long-lost friend to arrive.”

“That’s wonderful. And as it should be. But . . .” Something resides in Jamie’s voice. Personal reflection. I believe its source is the fragments of interaction I’ve witnessed between him and his father.

“But not as it often is?” I prod. Jamie is silent. I proceed with caution. “Were you ever close?”

He sighs. “Getting close to my father, one risks getting gored.”

“I’m so sorry.” I pause. “Why is he—”

“Futile. Utterly. Wasted breath. But, this isn’t. What was your father’s vocation?”

Obviously, this conversation is meant for another time. I inhale. “Ran a bar. Worked nights mostly. A real Irishman, you know? But he was a cause fighter, very politically active. If the schools weren’t doing their job, he would show up at the school-board meeting. If there was a dangerous street corner, he got a traffic light installed. If the local PD had cops taking bribes—which it did—he exposed it. He was a badass. And I helped him. Got signatures, approached people in front of grocery stores. People who were sure I was going to ask them to buy Girl Scout cookies.”

Jamie turns onto his side and props his head on his hand. There’s a silence, just the creaking of the planks and the lapping of the river. “When did he die?”

“Almost twelve years ago.”

Jamie pauses. I can tell he’s treading carefully. “Illness?”

“Mine, not his.” Jamie’s look of confusion pushes me onward. “It was my thirteenth birthday party. Except there was no party. We had to cancel it. I’d been sick for over a week and I was climbing the walls. No dragon slaying with Dad, just bed.” I’ve never told this story before, but I don’t stop talking long enough to convince myself that I shouldn’t. “He felt bad that I wasn’t having a party, so we spent the day watching our favorite comedy duos. We’d recite the routines and never end up getting through them because we were laughing too hard.” Just saying this out loud has me grinning like an idiot. “Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, Burns and—” I catch myself and shake my head. “These names don’t mean anything to you, but for us—”

   
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