Home > My Oxford Year(34)

My Oxford Year(34)
Author: Julia Whelan

At Jamie’s silence, William presses, “Care to explain?”

Any ease Jamie had possessed has disappeared with his mother’s departure. He’s gone cold. Dead-fish cold. He gazes dully past William’s shoulder into the party. “No.”

“Even though it’s your best chance of remission?” William doesn’t even glance at me. Apparently, I don’t belong in this conversation.

But Jamie murmurs, “There’s Cecelia,” and waves to her across the room. “Come, Ella. Let’s say hello.”

“Jamie,” William says lowly, tightly. “This is not a time to gamble, to be reckless. What about trying the—”

Jamie turns to me as if his father has evaporated. “Shall we?”

I glance guiltily at William and say to Jamie, “Join you in a sec.”

“Be quick about it.” Jamie leaves before I can even metabolize my annoyance at his command.

I take a breath and turn to William, smiling, ready to mollify, to assure him that I’m there for his son. “I guess it’s fair to say that Jamie’s a bit stubborn about his medical decisions. But we’re handling it. In fact, he didn’t get a chance to tell you, but his numbers are really promising right now—”

“Are you quite finished?” William’s gaze snaps to mine like a laser, like he’s scanning me. I freeze. Before I can unfreeze, Antonia returns, all easy smiles, touching her husband’s arm.

“So sorry to interrupt, but we really must go find the table now. The Beauchamps are waiting and you know Matthew won’t have his Scotch until you do and you know how insufferable Caroline finds him until he has had it. Please be sure to find us later, Eleanor,” she says, smiling. “And do take my invitation seriously. We would simply love it if you came to visit us. Wouldn’t that be splendid, William?”

William breaks his stare and then, as if nothing but warmth had passed between us, says, “Splendid.”

Antonia leads him away and I, still mulling over the encounter, cross to Jamie and Cecelia, who stand about thirty feet away, heads huddled together. My unease with William is replaced by a sudden nervousness at approaching Cecelia.

I have no idea what to say to her.

Jamie told me that Cecelia met Oliver, who was studying at King’s College London at the time, during her second year at Oxford. They were on the same train, which broke down somewhere between London and Reading, and, with nothing better to do, they began to talk. According to Jamie, his brother phoned him when the train started moving again and simply said, “I found her. The One. Call off the search.” They’d been dating for six months when Oliver was diagnosed. They immediately got engaged. “The romantic impulse of youth,” Jamie had said, rolling his eyes. But I found the story remarkable. That a young woman, twenty-one, obviously smart as a whip, her whole life ahead of her, would choose to commit to a future where there, quite simply, wasn’t one.

What do you say to that?

I smile as I join them, and Jamie slips his hand into mine. “Sorry to abandon ship,” he mutters, kissing my bare shoulder. “But I simply can’t listen to him.”

I don’t argue, I don’t absolve. We’ll talk about it later. I turn to Cecelia. “Awesome gown. Great color!” Truthfully, I haven’t even glanced at her gown. Or the color. She could be wearing a bathing suit for all I know.

“Yours as well,” she says with that smile that could freeze lava in its flow.

“Why don’t I fetch some drinks,” Jamie says, touching both of our elbows. “God knows I need one. What’ll it be?”

“Grey Goose martini, extra dirty, three olives,” I answer. Jamie smiles and turns to Cecelia.

“Whichever white they’re pouring.”

“Sauv blanc?” Jamie asks, beginning to move away. “Chard if it’s not too oaky? Gewürztraminer?”

She looks levelly at him. “White.”

Chuckling, he leaves. Cecelia turns back to me with a slightly more genuine smile. “Jamie and his wine.”

I respond with far too hearty a laugh. “It’s been an education.” I’ve never taken the time to actually see her, to go beyond how pretty she is, into who she is. I try to do so now. It’s slightly easier than before. The door’s no longer locked and bolted, just closed.

“I’m sure it has, rather,” she says knowingly. There’s a sincerity there that feels like an offering.

I seize it. “Look. I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through, I wouldn’t even pretend to know . . . but I have . . . experienced loss before. And if—”

She places her hand on my arm. “Understood. Consider me available. If you have questions, or simply want to chat. I only wish I’d had someone.”

There’s softness in her voice, in her. I like her, I realize. Her coldness, her aloofness, what I mistook for jealousy, I now see was just her protectiveness of Jamie. “Can I just say?” I blurt out. God, where’s Jamie with the drinks? This would be so much easier with vodka. I swallow. “I am so, so, so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she replies immediately, and I recognize it for what it is: the involuntary response of someone who hears “I’m sorry for your loss” every single hour of every single day and for whom it has ceased to have any meaning. But the look in her eyes tells me she knows this one is sincere.

But then she changes tack completely. “Which C course will you be taking next term?”

“W-what?”

“I was thinking I might take Senses of Humour: from Wordsworth to Eliot.” She regards me and, finally, smiles slightly. “I’d quite like to learn how to laugh again.”

I DON’T THINK I’ve ever laughed more in my life. My earlier discomfort has eased. I’ve acclimated to the ostentation and not just because I’ve had a few drinks. We’ve staked our claim in a corner near the dance floor and Jamie has been telling us who everyone is. Charlie then spouts a completely ridiculous falsehood about them. Jamie will point to a portly, balding man, say something like, “That’s Geoffrey Mondale, seventh Earl of Sheffield,” and Charlie will instantly add, “Geoffy Sheffy to his friends, been known to run naked through his woods in Maori-inspired face paint stalking squirrels, which inevitably manage to elude him.” Even Cecelia’s laughing, shaking her head and murmuring, “Oh Lord, enough.” Of course the one time Charlie holds back after Jamie’s introduction, it’s Cecelia who swats him on the arm and says, “Come now, Charlie. Don’t be a bore.”

When Jamie runs out of people to talk about, Maggie asks Charlie to dance with her. They’re turning to leave when Tom—yes, Tom!—steps forward, saying grimly, “I’ll do it,” as if it’s a chore. As if he’s a soldier in the trenches and someone has to run behind enemy lines to rescue a fallen comrade. We all look at him. “What? I’m . . .” He fizzles out. “Taller.” Charlie steps back, hands up, relinquishing. Maggie instantly blushes and puts her hand out for Tom to take, only Tom’s already turned heel, making a beeline for the dance floor. She looks at me, hopeful. I give her an encouraging smile and she turns, plodding in her heels to catch up with Tom. Charlie and I raise an eyebrow at each other. We watch them begin to dance, arms fully outstretched, middle school style, leaving four feet between them. Maggie starts to say something just as Tom starts to say something. She—predictably—apologizes, and Tom looks down at his feet. From which he doesn’t look up again. Maggie’s eyes find us, forehead more deeply furrowed than I’ve ever seen it.

“I give up.” Charlie sighs, turning to me. “Right. To the bar. Statistically, there’s not enough alcohol in the world to make watching that”—he gestures dismissively toward our friends—“comfortable, but I shall happily endeavor to prove the exception.” He leaves.

Jamie turns to me and extends an arm. “Shall we?”

About to answer, I catch a glimpse of Cecelia. She’s watching the dancing couples, wearing a slightly melancholy, nostalgic look. I nudge Jamie and tip my head at her. He quirks his head at me. I try again. He quirks further. I incline my entire head in Cecelia’s direction. He gets it this time. “Ce?” She turns that serene face to him. “Would you care to dance?”

I half expect her to demur, but her face lights up, a smile emanating from it. She nods quickly, almost embarrassed. “So much.”

Jamie offers his arm and she gratefully takes it. As I watch them step out onto the dance floor I can’t believe how happy I suddenly am. Against all reason, given the circumstances, how blisteringly happy I am in this moment, watching these people I’ve come to care about congregate on a dance floor. There’s something magical about it.

On a sigh, I turn to go find Charlie, and run straight into William.

“Whoa!” I cry, keeping control of my glass as I step back from his battering ram of a chest. “Sorry.”

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” he says.

“No, it’s fine!” I remind myself to smile. “I was just on my way to—”

“Dance with me.” He offers his arm, looks out at the dance floor.

“I’d love to.” And I mean it. Mostly. I want to start over with him, get to know him. I set my drink on a table.

Just as I extend my hand to him, my purse vibrates. Shit. “Sorry,” I say to William, and his head turns toward me. “I just need to . . .” I dig my phone out and look at the display. Gavin. Of course. “I’ll be quick.”

“I’ll wait,” William says, looking back out, something ominous in that declaration. I wince apologetically, but he doesn’t see it.

Yes, it’s a Saturday night, and yes, I’m at a ball at a palace in England, but this is who I am. I’m the person who takes the call. Besides, I know what it’s about and it’ll be quick. “Gavin.”

   
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