Home > My Oxford Year(21)

My Oxford Year(21)
Author: Julia Whelan


I stop. “You know Burns and Allen?”

“I prefer Abbott and Costello.”

That live-wire current between us charges again. That it’s happening in the middle of telling Jamie about my dad’s death is odd, to say the least.

“Sorry, please continue,” Jamie urges.

“We’re putting a pin in this discussion,” I murmur.


I take a breath. “So, there was this place in town, this café that made my favorite thing in the entire world and my dad wanted me to have it for my birthday. After watching the videos, he only had about an hour before he had to be at the bar, but he was determined to get me my birthday treat. Eventually, I fell asleep on the couch. A knock on the door woke me up. Red-and-blue lights were flashing around our living room, coming in through the windows. My mom went to the door. And she started screaming. Just screaming her head off. I don’t remember standing up or walking to the door. Just my mother on the floor with a policeman on his knees trying to hold her up.” I pause for a moment, considering this, the genesis of the rift between my mother and me.

She just completely fell apart. Which I get, trust me, I get it, but she never got herself up off that floor. One of the policemen took her away, into the kitchen, and another one took me out into the freak, late-winter storm to my aunt’s house and I didn’t see my mother again for almost three weeks. I kept waiting for her to show up, to take me home. I went back to school, where I was suddenly the Girl Whose Father Died. I pulled away from everyone. I’d slip out through the gym at the end of the day so I wouldn’t have to face anyone and I’d walk back to my aunt’s house and I’d sit on the porch and wait for my mom to show up. I did this for two weeks. One day, to cheer me up I guess, my aunt bought me an issue of Seventeen magazine.

When my mother finally did show up, she got out of her car and I came to my feet, the chipped blue paint I’d been picking off the porch still under my fingernails. She walked up to me and I reached out my arms, but she stopped moving and started sobbing, bringing her hands up to her face. I went to her. I hugged her because I wanted—needed—to feel her arms around me. But her arms didn’t move. I held her as she held her face and sobbed, and when she could finally talk all she said was, “Help me, Eleanor,” over and over and over again, like a chant.

That was the last time I ever let myself need anything from anyone.

I realize I haven’t spoken in a while. Jamie has been quietly waiting. I remember where I left off in the story; cops at the door, mother crying, father dead. I clear my throat. “First thing I remember thinking was, ‘I’m never having my birthday hot chocolate.’” I had cried about that. I sobbed about it. I fixated on not having the hot chocolate so I wouldn’t think about what else I’d never have again.

Jamie inhales slowly, bracingly. I chance a look at him. He looks thoughtfully at me. I speak. “They said he was killed on impact. So it could have been worse.” Jamie just stares at me, looking for tears, I think. I stare back, trying to decipher what I see there. It’s not pity, exactly. It’s understanding. But it’s laced with a tentative regret. Like looking at an aging family pet that’s going to need to be put down soon.

“Anyway,” I breathe, and roll over on top of him. I push myself up and straddle him in one smooth move, barely rocking us. I lean down and kiss him, a kiss that says I have some good months left in me, don’t put me to sleep yet. I hastily undo his belt and lift my skirt up around my hips, reaching for the waistband of my wool tights.

“Ella . . .” he says, against my mouth.

“Yeah?” I pant.

He pushes me back slightly. Looks at me. “You don’t have to do this now. We don’t have to do this.”

“This is what we do.” I kiss him again, but he doesn’t join in.

His hands find my hips, gently stilling me. “Ella, excuse me, but . . . well, one ought to use protection for sex. Not the other way round.”

I flush with anger. Instantly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I climb off Jamie and cross my arms over my chest.

Jamie comes up on his elbows, shaking his head. “You told me you’d never had your heart broken, and clearly—”

“Oh God, this is why I don’t talk about myself! ‘Poor Ella, lost her dad and locked her heart away, never to love again.’ Genius, Jamie. Really, very astute. You’ve got it all figured out. So tell me, why don’t you want a relationship? What’s your excuse, huh?”

Jamie’s eyes drill into mine, hands fanned out in supplication, voice low. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

I don’t know if he’s answering my question or if he’s just trying to stop the argument, but his gentle compassion takes some of the heat out of me. After a quiet moment, we both take a breath. Then we look at each other. He smiles tentatively and says, “Was that our first row?” I chuckle. He takes my hand and murmurs, “I have an idea. Let’s do something a bit daft. I’m going to lie back down and you’re going to lie down next to me. I’ll set the punt adrift. Go where the current takes us.”

“No talking?”

“No talking.”

Jamie pushes us off the shore as I slide back down into the bottom of the punt. After a moment of stargazing, I find my head turning in toward him, resting on his chest. My body turns as well, my front finding his side. Immediately, his arm folds around me like a protective wing. I let my arm cross his body, my hand finding the curve of his shoulder and resting there. “May I say one more thing?” Jamie’s chest rumbles with the richness of his voice. It vibrates through my head, almost making me dizzy.

“As long as I don’t have to say anything.”

“Just say yes, then.”

I pause. “That depends on what—”

“Say it.”

This makes me smile. I’ll bite. “Yes.”

“It’s settled. My house. Tomorrow. Seven.”

I lift my head to look at him. “Your house house?”

“You’re talking.”

“I’ll bring dessert,” I whisper.

His hand finds a perfect spot to rest on the curve of my ass as he murmurs, “You better.” His other hand cups the side of my head, smoothing back my hair. With gentle pressure, he guides my head back down to his chest. I close my eyes.

The sounds of water, wind, trees, and night insects swell around us. Under that, the sound of Jamie’s heartbeat in my ear, his breath lifting my head in an elemental cadence. There’s a fragrance in the air that I didn’t notice before, a constricting. Earth preparing for winter. I open my eyes slightly and can just glimpse the water over the side of the punt, the moonlight on the surface a study in light and dark. I gently rub the wool sweater at Jamie’s shoulder, absently fingering the burls.

It’s amazing how much you notice when you’re not having sex.

Chapter 14

If I or she should chance to be

Involved in this affair,

He trusts to you to set them free,

Exactly as we were.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), “Untitled,” 1855

This is ridiculous.”

“Yeah.” Jamie scratches his eyebrow.

“No, I mean . . .” I walk into the center of the empty ballroom, throwing my arms out. “This is ridiculous, Jamie.”

“I quite agree.” He nods.

“You have a ballroom.” A Victorian town-house-sized ballroom, but still. I stare at him. “How did this happen?”

Jamie worries his finger over a chip in the carved marble-faced fireplace. “My mother’s aunt, Charlotte. She had no children. When I came up to Oxford for undergraduate I was kind to her. Went marketing, changed lightbulbs, did the washing up, that sort of thing. She died last year. I’d no idea she’d bequeath it to me. I started coming up from Cambridge at the weekends to work on it.”

I take in the large room with its gleaming wood floor, huge windows overlooking the quaint street, and very real crystal chandelier. “It’s beautifully preserved. It’s like a set from a Jane Austen movie.”

“I’m rather proud, really. Charlotte absolutely gutted it after the war. She was a dear woman, but had no sense of history. I’ve endeavored to bring it back to its original state. It’s almost done now. I’ve worked with a conservation specialist who refers me to accredited woodworkers, stonemasons, ironmongers, and the like. I also do a fair bit of the work myself.” He looks up at the ceiling.

“And now you get to enjoy it. Live here. Raise a family here.” He shrugs noncommittally. I blink. “You’re not going to sell it, are you?”

“No.” I relax slightly. “I’m going to donate it. It will make a fine museum once I’m finished. It’s finished.” He looks back to the ceiling for a quiet moment.

A moment I can’t help but interrupt. “Seriously? But why would you—”

He cuts me off, looking at his watch. “Must check on dinner. Come with?” He holds out his hand and I take it, following him out the gilded double doors and down the grand staircase, back to the first floor.

“ARE ALL THESE old portraits decoration, or actual family?” I call out from the drawing room to Jamie, who is in the kitchen doing something miraculous with chicken.

“Actual,” he calls back.

Amid all the staid paintings of women in ruffled frocks and gentlemen with their hands on sword hilts, there’s a photograph above the fireplace. An elegant woman sits in a chair, three men fanned out behind her. The setting, a book-laden room. I recognize Jamie, tuxedo’d and in his late teens. The staging reflects the stoicism of the figures in the antique portraits, but there’s one major difference: this family looks happy. Loving. Proud. Slightly mischievous. There’s an ease in Jamie’s face, something I only get glimpses of in adult Jamie. The mother and father are the definition of what the Victorians would call a “handsome couple.”

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