Home > My Oxford Year(3)

My Oxford Year(3)
Author: Julia Whelan

“Harry Pott—”

“Meals are at your discretion. We have Formal Hall on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. Gowns must be worn. Nip into a shop on Turl for one. Boiler won’t come on till October fifteenth, no heat till then, so don’t ask for it. You’ll find two keys in the envelope; the electronic card will get you in the gates and any of the public rooms after hours, the other is a proper key for your room. It is irreplaceable. Don’t lose it.”

I understand maybe half of what he’s said. “Thanks. What’s your name?” I ask.

His turtle neck recedes. “Hugh,” he grunts, turning back to the pidges.

“I’m Ella.”

“We’ve established that, Miss Durran.”

“Well,” I say, grabbing the handle of my suitcase, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Hugh.”

“Of all the gin joints, Miss Durran,” he mutters. But I can see the hint of a smile. I mean, it’s reluctant and has a rusty, unused quality about it, like an old bicycle pump, but it’s there. “You’ll be finding staircase four just outside the lodge—” I open my mouth to speak, but he forges on, “This is the lodge, and you will exit through that door there, cross St. John’s quad, turn left at Swithuns, and then you will pass, on your left, staircase one, and then you will pass, also on your left, staircase two, and if you persevere you shall invariably come to staircase four.” I try again, opening my mouth to speak, but he deftly continues: “At which point, your room will be on the left of the uppermost landing, at the very top.”

The words “the very top” give me pause. I’m once again reminded that I haven’t eaten since I left the States.

“Hugh, would you mind if I left my bags here and got some food first?”

“As you will, Miss Durran.”

“I’ll be quick,” I assure him, but Hugh’s turned back to his copier. “Any recommendations?”

“Plenty of options on the High.”

The High. So much cooler than High Street.

I wheel my bag next to the copier, take my book out of my backpack, turn to go, and stop abruptly. A boy pokes his head around the entrance to the lodge and tentatively steps forward. He moves like a mouse. He’s pudgy around the middle and his hair is styled in two pointed fans on the top of his head, resembling ears. He looks like Gus Gus from Cinderella.

I’m so tired.

“Yes,” Hugh snaps at the boy, instantly impatient.

He looks as if he wants to flee, but says, “Yes, erm, sorry, sir, I’m going to, erm, uh, Sebastian Melmoth’s room?”

“Not again,” Hugh mutters. “Posh prat.” I can’t help but smile. Someone actually said “posh prat” in real life, in real time, right in front of me. Hugh then barks at the boy, “Don’t just stand there, come in, come in.” Gus Gus scurries past us. As Hugh shakes his head, I walk back out to the High.

Taking an arbitrary right, I journey back the way I came, glancing at my watch. As if on cue, a clock tower somewhere begins belting out five resounding chimes. Goose bumps crawl up my arms. If I weren’t exhausted I’d probably start crying.

I glance across the street and stop.

I can’t believe what I’m seeing. The sign still looks exactly like it did in the magazine.


I look left and move to cross the street, dropping one foot off the curb when the sudden bleat of a horn makes me leap back onto the sidewalk. I clutch my book to my chest, keeping my heart from falling out. A classic silver convertible, like something out of a Bond movie, flies past, nearly running me over. I catch a glimpse of the careless driver, whose longish brown hair swirls in the wind as he zooms off. In the passenger seat, an equally windswept blond woman turns around to stare at me, her mouth wide open in a shocked, but unabashed, laugh.

“Not funny!” I want to shout after them, but they’re already well past me. As my heart begins beating normally again, I take a deep breath and step off the curb once more. This time, making sure to look right.

A TINY BELL jingles as I enter the Happy Cod. The proprietor, a stocky, red-nosed man with a white towel slung over his shoulder, glances up cheerfully. “Hallo!”

The small, charming room has a row of wooden booths on one side and a bar with stools on the other. The man stands at the back, behind a small service counter. There’s a stool there as well. He pats the counter in welcome. “What can I get you?”

“Fish and chips!”

“Comin’ right up.” He turns to his fryer as I settle in, running my hands along the old, worn wood and moving around on the squishy black vinyl seat. Everything feels just as I imagined it would. Smells just as I imagined it would. Even the proprietor is exactly as I imagined.

“I’m Ella, by the way.”

He spins back, ceremoniously wipes his hand on his towel, and offers it to me. “Simon.” I take his hand, meeting his firm shake with one of my own. He grins. “Where you from, Ella?”

“Ohio, originally. But I live in D.C. now.” Simon nods vaguely and leans his elbows on the counter, looking down at the book I’ve put there.

It’s a meager hardcover, bound in that linen material that only academic books are covered in. It cost me eighty dollars on eBay; the price of these books is inversely proportional to the size of their audience. He reads the title aloud, picking over each word as if he’s selecting ripe tomatoes: “The Victorian Conundrum: How Contemporary Poetry Shaped Gender Politics and Sexuality 1837 to 1898, by Roberta Styan.” He glances up at me dubiously.

“It’s a real page-turner,” I say, and he guffaws. “No, I’m doing a master’s.” I tap the author’s name on the cover. “Mostly with Professor Styan. Do you know her?” Simon shakes his head and a beeping noise comes from the fryer. He moves to it. “She’s, like, a deity in the lit crit world. Her specialty is Tennyson, which isn’t exactly my area. Not at all, actually. I work in politics. American politics. But this whole year for me is about pushing boundaries, and exploring new things, and basically just, like, leveling up. As a person?” Why am I rambling? Why do I feel like a fog is rolling into my head? Oh. Jet lag.

Simon wraps my whole meal in a cone of brown butcher paper surrounded by newspaper and offers it to me like a bouquet of roses. “Tradition,” he boasts. “Some other chippies use them plastic takeaway containers. Flattens me.” He hands me a paper plate, saying, “For sauce,” and gestures to a counter full of condiments at the front of the restaurant. “That’s me own twist on tradition. Used to be you’d come in here and get curry or peas or tartar and that was that. Give ’em a go. Promise you won’t be disappointed.” He winks at me.

Before I can reply, the bell jingles, and Simon turns his attention to the door. “JD!” he exclaims with a bright smile, opening the hinged counter and moving toward the entrance.

“Simon, my good man,” a male voice replies.

I focus on the culinary perfection in front of me. God, the smell. I take a bite. Heaven. I have to restrain myself from moaning.

I hear the man say, “Two fish and chips and two fizzies. Cheers, mate.” His voice is so melodious, so low and soothing, it should be accompanied by choral music.

Then a female voice says, “No chips for me. And make mine diet.”

Peripherally, I sense them settle in at a booth near the door as Simon comes back around. I take another mouthful of the perfectly prepared fish and this time am not so successful at stifling my moan. Simon, tending to the fryer, throws me a grin over his shoulder.

I hear the woman behind me murmur, “I thought you were taking me to the best place in Oxford.”

“And so I have,” the man says.

Pulling another chip out of the cone, I’m absorbed in trying to read pieces of the paper’s stories and advertisements, but the fog keeps rolling in. A few minutes later, Simon pops the countertop once more and lumbers over to the couple, delivering their meals. “Cheers,” the man says, then, as Simon comes back through the counter, “Behold the potato! Divine tuber. Staple of the gods. How we adore thee!”

“They give you a fat arse,” the woman replies.

“No, no,” the man argues, “The oil does. The oil! Yet the potato takes the blame. It’s a bloody outrage, I tell you.” He laughs. She doesn’t.

Simon catches my eye and rolls his. I roll mine back and we smile, comrades-in-arms. He nods toward the condiment station, whispering, “Really, give ’em a go.”

“Oh, right! I forgot.” I pick up my plate and walk to the counter to survey the many options.

I hear the man continue, “Now, the Irish! They knew the value of the potato. Did you know that when the Irish were deprived of the potato for just a few years, a million people died?”

There’s a pause. “Why didn’t they just eat something else?”

My hand punches the tarter sauce pump and the thick paste overshoots my plate, splattering onto the counter.

“What, like cake?” the man asks dryly.

“Sure,” she answers, immune to sarcasm.

I pick up a bottle labeled Brown Sauce (not exactly descriptive) and pour that onto my plate, too. Then I take a squeeze of mustard, a dollop of mayonnaise, something that looks like chutney but I’m not sure. I feel obligated to take a little of everything, not wanting to disappoint Simon. The plate looks like a painter’s palette.

I hear Golden Voice get out of the booth. “Why didn’t they just eat something else? Excellent question! Let them eat cake! But, see, they’d run out. Not a slice of cake in the entire country. Bloody awful. What was the Empire coming to, eh?” Dry British wit on full display. Always entertaining and yet somehow thoroughly obnoxious. “Now,” he continues, “there’s a home-cooked meal in it for you—”

She cuts him off, using a low, come-hither voice. “I’d rather those earrings we saw earlier.”

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