Home > My Oxford Year(23)

My Oxford Year(23)
Author: Julia Whelan

Jamie nods and smiles as if his life depended on it. “Indeed, indeed I have been. Sorry, it’s just been mad. I meant to—”

Martin immediately holds up his hands. “No, no!” he declares. “It’s completely understandable.”

“Oh!” Sophie claps. “We’re having our stag and hen this coming Wednesday. A joint one.”

Martin holds up a finger. “The first one. Informal, just for the Oxford people. We’re having a proper do in London next month.” He grins at Sophie. “Separately, thankyouverymuch.”

She ignores him. “Why not come, both of you!”

“Yes, well, I’ll be sure to give you a ring,” Jamie says quickly. “Ella, we really should be off.” And with that, he quickly stands.

I look down at my untouched fish and chips.

“Ah, Happy Cod for breakfast,” Martin says with a wistful sigh. “That was always a milestone, wasn’t it?” He winks at me.

“You must come!” Sophie reiterates, taking my hand in her diamond-encrusted one.

I smile at her. I look down at our hands. “What a beautiful ring.”

“Isn’t it just grand?” she hisses, pouncing on the compliment like a tigress lying in wait for its prey.

“Where’s the party going to be—”

“Actually,” Jamie interrupts. “Would you mind texting me the details? We really must be off.” Jamie picks up our two bouquets of breakfast. “We’ll take this along with us, Ella. Sorry for the rush. Lost track of time.”

My stomach clenches. Is he embarrassed by me? Or worse, ashamed?

“I did try texting a while back—” Martin holds up his phone.

“Really? Must not have received it. Vodaphone were complete shit for a while there, finally switched, couldn’t take it anymore. Ella?” He’s looking beseechingly at me. I quickly stand and slip out of the booth. “Apologies, must get Ella to her lecture.”

Sophie turns to me, beaming. “Oh, what do you teach, then?”

“I—I don’t actually, I’m a student,” I stammer.

They both look at Jamie.

“Graduate student,” I clarify, trying to make it better somehow. Why is everything awkward?

“Anyway, lovely to meet you,” Jamie says, reaching for Sophie’s hand and then Martin’s. Their eyes meet and it feels like the first time Jamie has actually looked at him since he came into the chip shop. “You look happy,” he murmurs.

Martin takes a serious tone. “I am. We are. Thank you.”

Jamie smiles tightly once more and we head for the door. “Mate?” Martin calls out. “Any improvement?”

Without stopping, Jamie glances over his shoulder and nonanswers, “Brilliant. Cheers.”

Chapter 15

You have been mine before,—

How long ago I may not know:

But just when at that swallow’s soar

Your neck turned so,

Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Sudden Light,” 1863

We’re in Jamie’s classic convertible—which I’ve figured out is an Aston Martin—and almost to the English faculty, when I finally decide he isn’t going to offer an explanation for the elephant in the chip shop. So I ask, “What was Martin referring to?”

“Sorry?”

“Martin asked if there was ‘any improvement,’” I huff, “and I have no idea what he’s talking about and you obviously do.”

He doesn’t answer. We stop at a red light and Jamie goes vampire still, staring straight ahead. He finally mutters, “It’s my brother. Oliver. He’s undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma.”

My tone immediately shifts. “I’m sorry.” Then, when he doesn’t continue, “What is that exactly? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“It’s a blood cancer. Specifically of the plasma cells.”

“Oh God,” I exhale. “I’m so sorry.”

Jamie stoically shakes this off as the light turns green and he accelerates through the intersection. “Best not linger on it.”

“But he’s so young.”

“There’s nothing logical about disease.” Jamie pulls over in front of the St. Cross building.

I ask the follow-up question, even though I’m afraid to. “So? Has there been any improvement?”

“No,” Jamie answers bluntly. “There is no cure, actually.” I stifle a groan, feeling Oliver’s condemnation at my core. Jamie looks at the steering wheel. “I’m sorry, Ella, I should’ve been more forthcoming. I’m simply not one to go on about such things. But now you can better understand the demands on my time. I take him to treatment in London and stay on with him afterward.”

I reach over and take his hand, which still rests on the Aston’s shifter. “You don’t have to hide things from me, Jamie. I’m a big girl. I can handle it.” Jamie nods quickly, but doesn’t look at me. “Jamie,” I try again, leaning into him. “If you need anything, I’m here for you. I could come be with you in London. Run errands, make meals, I don’t know, watch a bunch of Abbott and Costello?”

“It’s quite all right,” he says, braving a glance at me and smiling slightly. “I appreciate that, honestly I do, but we’ve a routine. And Oliver is rather private about the whole thing.” He looks down at our hands on the shifter. He turns his hand around in mine and grasps it. “Actually,” he says slowly, “now that we’re on the up-and-up about all this, I’m terribly behind in my work and Oliver has a break in treatment coming up. I hesitate to even ask, but would you be terribly offended if we gave”—he gestures between us—“this, us, a brief hiatus?”

“Of course not. Like I said, whatever you need.” My answer is so automated it sounds like a customer-service call-center recording. Press one for disingenuous pandering, press two for passive-aggressive bullshit—

“You’re just too damn distracting, you see,” he says, leaning in charmingly.

Now I look out the window. “Actually, I could use some time, too. I need to start thinking about my dissertation subject and I’ve barely cracked Middlemarch.”

“Ah, my favorite.” Jamie sighs.

“But it’s not poetry,” I tease.

“I beg to differ. You’ll see. For whose class?”

“Hughes.”

Jamie rolls his eyes. “Here’s a fun game with Hughes. Count the number of times he feels the need, apropos of nothing, to remind everyone how spectacularly unattractive George Eliot was.”

I chuckle and gather my bag off the floor, still holding on to his hand. “So, how long do you think you need?”

Jamie looks outside, considering. “A month?”

“A month!” My surprised yelp is out of my mouth before I can stop it. Jamie doesn’t respond, just keeps staring out the window. I can’t help the ugly pang of hurt collecting in my stomach. I’m not proud of it. I know I’m being unforgivably selfish. But I need to know. “Jamie. Are you done? Because we said we’d be honest when it was over. Which is fine. And understandable. I mean, you obviously have—”

Without warning, Jamie grabs the back of my neck, closes the distance between us, and pulls me in for a kiss. I go molten inside, forgetting anything I might have been saying. Eventually, he pulls away, looks me right in the eye, and says, “I’m not done.” The husky promise settles deep inside me.

“Okay,” I whisper. He releases my neck and I open the door, reluctantly getting out. I sling my bag over my shoulder, lean down, and look at him. “So. I’m gonna go listen to Saunders lecture about the importance of margin notation in early modern manuscripts and you’re gonna get your Tennyson on and we’ll . . . be in touch.”

“It’s a plan,” he says, quoting my standard line, a teasing smile playing at his lips.

I SPEND THE weekend getting a little too drunk with Charlie, Maggie, and Tom. I don’t text or call Jamie and he doesn’t text or call me. I’ve turned our lack of communication into a drinking game: if you look at your phone and he still hasn’t contacted you, drink. It’s very effective.

Gavin throws a lot of work at me. Things I probably shouldn’t be doing. Things outside my auspices as the education consultant. Over the past six weeks, I’ve answered every one of his calls and returned every e-mail within an hour. I think he’s come to rely on me, especially when it pertains to staffing suggestions for young and hungry (i.e., cheap) field-office coordinators. He even asked me the other day for my opinion on a campaign ad. It’s odd imagining where I’ll be this time next year, if I’ll still be working for the senator, or if she’ll be the president-elect? Or if I’ll have some other client by then. The new people I’ll meet. Will I still be in touch with the ones I’ve met here?

I Skype with my mother and hear all about how it’s already snowed once, not much, only an inch or so and it didn’t stick, but she panicked and put the snow tires on and now she’s driving around with snow tires and she doesn’t know if she should take the snow tires off or just wait for it to really start snowing and why haven’t they invented temporary chains yet? They can put a man on the moon but they can’t invent temporary chains? I tell her they can and they have. I tell her my set from D.C. is sitting in her garage right now with the rest of the stuff I packed up before I left the country. This discussion takes a good thirty minutes and I’m able to disconnect the call without actually having told her anything relevant. But not before my door bursts open and Charlie walks in, wearing a new shirt and no pants (which my mother can’t see). He wants to know if the collar should go up or down. My mother tells him down. Satisfied, he leaves. My mother says he’s cute and asks if I’m seeing him. I tell her not yet, but my fingers are crossed.

   
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