Home > My Oxford Year(25)

My Oxford Year(25)
Author: Julia Whelan

I walk through a narrow arch in the medieval wall and into Front Quad. “Working on the thesis?”

“Eternally.” Jamie sighs.

“And how’s it coming?” I ask, exiting the lodge and turning left on Turl.

“Brilliant.”

“Really? That’s great. Good to hear.”

“No, not really,” Jamie whispers. “I think it’s only appropriate at this point to give back my doctorate and self-exile in ignominy to the Isle of Elba.”

I come to an iron gate that looks like it leads to the church. I push on it. It won’t budge. That’s when I notice the card reader attached to the latch, blinking its red eye at me. Dammit. “I’m sure it’s not that bad,” I say, hoping someone will exit the gate so I can slip through.

“How are you and George Eliot faring?” Jamie asks, just as a girl approaches the gate and opens it. I smile confidently at her, as if I belong here, and slip inside.

“I’m in love,” I answer truthfully, but distractedly. “She’s the voice of God in my head.” I walk up to the sliding glass doors of the library and find yet another card reader. I grind my teeth.

“I told you,” Jamie purrs.

“Forgot your card?” I hear behind me. I whip around and find a lanky acne-riddled boy grinning sheepishly at me.

I tightly cover the mouthpiece on my phone and flash my winningest smile. “Yes! I’m such an idiot. You’re my hero.”

He flushes red and, ducking his head, swipes his card. The doors slide open. “Thanks,” I mouth.

“Anytime,” he whispers.

“What’s that? Where are you?” Jamie asks.

“Just getting some food,” I lie as I close in on my unsuspecting prey.

“Doesn’t Moo-Moo’s close at five?”

You think you know me so well, Dr. Davenport. “Tell me exactly where you are in the library, the precise spot,” I whisper, entering the main room of the converted church.

Wow. I was not expecting this. It is gorgeous. Soaring white marble ceiling with painted blue insets, high arched windows, an open floor with wooden stacks jutting inward like ribs, and a long table in the center. Religion for bibliophiles. There’s even a late-medieval tomb topped with the horizontal carving of a knight, sword clutched atop his chest, a mirror image of the bones the sarcophagus contains. Eerie, but I love that it’s still here. Someone clearly doubted the spiritual wisdom of removing it. A few books sit atop it, waiting to be reshelved.

“Shall I tell you what I’m wearing as well?” Jamie chuckles.

“It does kind of turn me on. Imagining you sitting there, working away. I can see myself—”

“Right.” Jamie coughs. “Well then, allow me to assist.” He drops his voice, murmurs, low and sweet, “In between the stacks are study carrels. Last row in the back. I like the one on the right, closest to the window overlooking the High. Sometimes there’s an unfortunate fresher in my spot and I challenge him to a duel.”

“Ooh, blood sport. Hot,” I coo, padding lightly down the center aisle.

“I take my chair, prepare my tablets and books . . . er, unbutton my jacket, and then I, well, I suppose I sit down—” He stops abruptly, voice suddenly less phone sex and more awkward telemarketer. “This can’t be remotely exciting.”

“You have no idea.”

“I want to see you,” he groans. “I hope soon.”

“Sooner than you think,” I say smugly, closing in on the final stack.

“Bollocks. The librarian’s onto me. I have to go. Chat soon, yes?”

“Uh-huh,” I answer, grinning. I hang up just as I turn the corner, his carrel, no more than fifteen feet away, coming into view.

It’s empty.

Chapter 16

But though with seeming mirth she takes her part

In all the dances and the laughter there,

And though to many a youth, on brief demand,

She gives a kind assent and courteous hand,

She loves but him, for him is all her care.

Charles (Tennyson) Turner, “A Country Dance,” 1880

What did I say to him? What did I say when this whole thing started? I said don’t lie to me. Simple. I said honesty is the only way this is going to work. Honesty about when we’ve reached the end of the road, honesty about what we’re feeling for each other. I ignore the obnoxious little voice inside my head that points out I haven’t been entirely honest about that last bit and focus instead on Jamie’s duplicity.

I even gave him the benefit of the doubt. I walked every aisle, looked in every carrel. He lied to me.

As I wend my way through the throng on the High, I group text Charlie, Maggie, and Tom:

Meet me in 20. We’re going out.

“HUGH!” I EXCLAIM, banging into the lodge. “Put the champagne on ice! Ella Durran’s hitting the town tonight!”

He pauses in his nightly ritual of powering everything down, gazing at me over the tops of his glasses. “Indeed, Miss Durran?”

I keep walking. “Indeedy-do, Hugh! I’m blowing this Popsicle stand!” I abruptly halt. There’s a long-stemmed rose sticking out of one of the pidges.

My pidge.

“Hugh,” I breathe. “When did—”

“This morning, Miss Durran. I was growing rather concerned it might wilt. Just about to place it in a bit of water for you, actually—”

I yank the rose out of my pidge, throw it to the floor, and stomp on it. Repeatedly. He dares sully my pidge with his lies? The nerve!

The smell of crushed roses brings me back to myself. Breathing heavily, I look at Hugh. His expression hasn’t changed in the slightest during my tantrum. He still watches me as if I’ve entered the lodge with the sole purpose of boring him. “No water, then?”

I look down at the rose in disbelief. “Sorry,” I mutter, bending over to scoop up its masticated petals.

“I’ll attend to it,” Hugh says quietly.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what—”

“Miss Durran.”

I look up and see Hugh standing over me with that same dulled expression, but a changed tone. “Allow me.” He squats down next to me with a slight grunt, knees creaking. His kindness overwhelms me and my throat tightens. “I’m so sorry—” I offer again, but Hugh just shakes his head.

“’Tis nothing. Best be off, Miss Durran. You’ve Popsicle stands to blow.”

This kind man reaches into the ashes and pulls a smile out of me. “Thank you, Hugh. You’re a keeper, you know that?”

“My ex-wife would disagree with you there, Miss Durran.”

I muster one more smile and flee the lodge.

I hoof up my staircase. Charlie’s door is open and, upon hearing my footsteps, he emerges, dressed in his Gatsby suit and smelling like a French hooker, bless him. He holds a bottle of whiskey by the neck like a dead duck. Maggie, brow perpetually furrowed in worry, appears behind him, Tom—still wearing his bike helmet—beside her.

I smile brightly. Too brightly. “Great, you’re all here! Let’s go! Let’s go dance!” I start back down the stairs, but when I don’t hear them behind me, I turn around. “What?”

Maggie smiles placatingly, as if she’s about to talk a jumper off the ledge. “Sorry, but it’s half five, love.”

“So?”

“No clubs are open at half five, love.”

I huff out a breath, devastated. “Well . . .” My voice breaks as I toss my hands out helplessly. “What should we do?”

They all look at each other, then back at me. Charlie holds up the whiskey bottle. “Pray about it?”

BY THE TIME the club opens, we’re drunk. Drunk enough to think riding our bikes there is a good idea. Only Charlie doesn’t have a bike, so he perches on the handlebars of Tom’s bike, Pippa. The entire ride there, Charlie mutters about the decline of the monarchy and the ascent of the “feckless bourgeois heathens” (I can only assume he means the Middletons).

We drop our bikes in the alleyway leading to the club and stagger to the front door, where a handsome, smiling face awaits me. “Ella,” he says warmly, “beautiful night for a bike ride.”

I forgot to mention it’s pissing rain.

I also forgot to mention that about an hour ago Connor texted me asking if I’d thought any more about going to London tomorrow for Thanksgiving. I didn’t answer his question, but I did tell him he should meet us at the club.

Apparently, he did.

Smiling back at him, I wipe the rain off my face and introduce my friends. Maggie blushes shyly and Tom gets all blokey, slapping Connor on the shoulder and editorializing about women and dancing, something like, “What are you gonna do, eh? They like it when we shake it.” I’m not really paying attention, because I’m watching Charlie elevator-assess Connor. Thoroughly. When he finally sticks out his hand, he side-eyes me, conveying a silent but nonetheless very loud, He’s no Jamie Davenport. I glare back with an equally loud look that says, Shut up.

Charlie brushes past me, murmuring, “Just so long as you recognize it,” and continues forward into the dark entryway of the club. We all follow.

I’m not a club expert, but as soon as we’re inside I can tell this one is a dive. First, it’s a dance club in a town with arguably the highest nerd-per-capita ratio in the entire world. So I wouldn’t call what’s happening in the middle of the floor dancing so much as controlled convulsing. Second, instead of being sweltering as most clubs are, this one manages to retain that bone-deep chill that’s uniquely British. Third, it’s a Wednesday. So nobody is here because they should be. There’s either a very good or a very bad reason.

Given the state I’m in, it’s perfect.

“Drink?” Connor whisper-yells into my ear.

“I’m good for now,” I call back.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, we pregamed.”

   
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