Home > My Oxford Year(6)

My Oxford Year(6)
Author: Julia Whelan

We glance at each other with mirrored looks of chagrin. He has a really nice face: chiseled jaw, sloped nose, bright brown eyes, and Stephanopoulos hair. This is what I used to imagine a Rhodes scholar looked like. The prep school quarterback from a J. D. Salinger novel.

“Well, Ella, I won’t take up any more of your time. I just wanted to say welcome aboard.”

“Thank you. I won’t let you down.”

“Never crossed my mind. Wait, Gavin wants to say something. I’ll hand you over.”

Do I tell him I’m missing orientation? Do I tell him I’ll call him back? Do I have a choice? Gavin’s voice comes on the line. “You have a minute? I can get Priya Banergee right now for a conference call. You in?”

Priya Banergee is a pollster. I should hear what she has to say. I look wistfully at the Rhodes House door even as I say, “Of course.” They patch Priya in as I plop down on the top step. My partner in cell-phone purgatory takes up residence on the other side of the stair. We give each other a resigned grin. As he speaks into his phone, I find myself assessing him.

Jesus. That is one attractive Rhodie.

TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, after listening to an endless stream of data and contributing almost nothing to the conversation, we wrap up. I disconnect and take a breath, then glance over at the guy, who’s also just hanging up.

Smiling, he says, “Can we just agree that anything either of us might have overheard doesn’t leave this stoop?”

I snort. “Deal. But can I ask who you work for? Lobbyist?”

He nods. “Health care.”

“Which group?”

“PMR?” Public Medical Relations. The biggest healthcare lobbying group in D.C., and he says it as if questioning whether I’ve heard of it. Like when you ask someone where they went to college and they say, “Harvard?”

“You’re inside the Beltway as well?” he asks. I nod. He leans over, bracing a palm on the cool marble step and extending his other hand to me. “Connor Harrison-Smith.”

“Ella Durran.”

God, he has a killer smile. Wouldn’t that be just my luck; I come all the way to England and fall for a guy who probably lives a block from me in D.C. He gestures toward the door. “You wanna?” I nod and we both stand, collecting our things. “So, not that I overheard anything, obviously, but this is a new job for you?”

“Yeah. You?”

“No. I quit. I’m just helping out until the new guy’s up to speed.”

I make a show of contemplating this. “Interesting. So you’re just gonna, like, study for the year?”

“I’m just gonna, like, drink a lot of really good beer, is what I’m gonna do.” We both chuckle. “I’m doing a master’s in global health. You?”

“Literature.”

“Really?”

Everyone always sounds surprised when I say this. “Yup; 1830 to 1914.”

We move toward the door. “Huh.” A wrinkle appears on his brow as he puzzles this out. He’s adorable. “Where’d you do your undergrad?”

“Georgetown. You?”

“Harvard?”

I smile.

He opens the door and holds it for me. A gentleman.

After getting an abbreviated orientation from a harried administrator (go here, do this, see this person for this thing, don’t do this, sign this), I glance at my watch, and I only have ten minutes to get to my first class at the English faculty building. I seem to be the only person rushing out. I think I’m definitely the only one doing a master’s in English. Whenever I say what I’m studying, people tilt their heads at me. What is this literature of which you speak?

I head outside only to be slowed by Connor’s voice calling, “Ella, wait.” I turn back, see him standing on our stairs. “Why don’t I give you my number? In case you wanna drink some beer.”

I smile at him and take out my phone. “It’s a plan.”

THE ENGLISH FACULTY building is a blocky, midcentury cement blight. Not exactly what I had expected. One of the linear, unimaginative departments should have this building. Something like chemistry or mathematics or, well, global health.

I arrive at the designated lecture room ten minutes after the class’s start time, once again a day late and a pound short in this city. Collecting myself, I softly open the door, fully expecting to interrupt the class.

I don’t.

A group of about ten people is scattered around a horseshoe table, some murmuring to each other, others reading, others looking at their phones. No one is at the lectern.

I cross to a cluster of empty seats. As I pass behind one of them, a girl mutters, “Sorry! This doesn’t need to be here,” and quickly lifts her bag off the seat directly in front of me. I keep moving toward another empty chair, opening my mouth to tell her it’s okay, but she keeps talking. “So sorry. My apologies, really. Selfish.”

In America, there’d be a good chance her apologies were sarcastic. From the corner of my eye, I take her in. She’s dressed conservatively (boat-neck tweed sheath dress under a canary-yellow cardigan, ballet flats), and her hair is styled in an intricate sixties beehive. Only, it’s pink. She appears innocent of any sarcasm.

I consider introducing myself to her, but she looks as if interaction with a stranger might push her over the edge. I guess this must be the famous British reserve.

Just then the door bangs open, causing everyone to jump, and a guy, outfitted like Robert Redford in The Sting, strides in. “I have arrived,” he announces. “We can begin.” So much for British reserve. With a start, I realize that I know him.

“Sebastian Melmoth!” I say.

He stops and peers at me. The girl’s pink head swivels from him to me, eyes bulging, before whipping back to him. “Charlie! You swore you’d stop doing that!”

He drops his head theatrically to his chest and sulks toward us.

The girl turns back to me, doe-brown eyes sympathetic. “How did you meet this git, then?”

“We share a staircase,” I answer as he drops into the chair on the other side of her.

She spins back to him, smacking him on the arm. “And you didn’t recognize her?”

“In my defense,” he begins, “she was disguised as a vagrant. The old crone in a Breton lai who is actually a beautiful sorceress. Clever bitch gets me every time.” He looks past the girl, to me. “So, having failed the moral aptitude test, what shall it be, eh? Seven years as a toad? Eternity as a Tory? Or shall we dispense with further discord?” He extends his hand. “Charles Butler, veritas et virtus.”

I can’t help but smile. “Ella Durran.”

He drops my hand and settles back in his chair. “Come to mine tonight.” It’s not an apology, but it’s clearly a peace offering. “We’ll have a dram.”

“Will do. Thank you.”

He nudges the girl. “Join us.”

“All right.”

“Bring your Scotch.”

The girl rolls her eyes, but just then, Professor Roberta Styan walks in. Everything stops. She typifies the absentminded professor, stumbling up to the lectern, arms overflowing with paraphernalia. Briefcase, papers, umbrella, jacket, muttering as she walks, “Hello, hello, sorry, apologies for the delay.”

At the podium, she doesn’t set anything down, just stands behind it looking out at us. Then she says, “Right, so: tragic news, I’m afraid. I’ve just been named head of graduate studies. Which means I’m far too important to be teaching you lot.” Before we can respond, she continues, “Please, shed no tears! Rend not your garments! My replacement is more than able. In fact, he’s my most brilliant JRF. After two minutes with him—not to mention his skinny jeans—you’ll forget I ever existed.” She takes a breath, then smiles. Off our lack of reaction, she quips, “You were meant to scoff at that. Ah well. Without further ado, meet Jamie Davenport. Jamie?” She gestures toward the door.

Wait. Hold on. The person I came to Oxford to study with is leaving? But I’ve read all of her books, all of her papers. I watched all three of her YouTube videos. (It’s not her fault. Victorian sexuality and linguistics is a niche market.) This isn’t happening. She was my Oxford destiny, my Gandalf, my Mr. Miyagi, my whatever-Robin-Williams’s-Character’s-Name-Was-in-Dead-Poets-Society. What does she mean she’s not teaching?

Styan hobbles away from the podium, and the TA gives her a squeeze on the shoulder before taking the lectern. “Sorry to disappoint, my skinny jeans are at the cleaners.” He smiles charmingly at the group and everyone responds with an appreciative chuckle.

Except for me. I can’t respond. I’m too busy having my world reordered.

The new professor is the posh prat.

Chapter 5

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror cracked from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott,” 1831–1832

Jamie Davenport takes his time spreading his notes out on the podium. Then he looks up at the class and smiles impishly. “Please, be gentle.”

What would happen if I left? This is only one of my courses and it only meets once a week. Maybe I can join another group. Maybe I can track down Styan and convince her to work with me privately. I refuse to allow this teaching assistant to be my only option. This cannot be my “Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience.” That’s supposed to be a good thing.

“Five years ago,” he begins, “I sat right where you are now. Styan walked in and I thought, ‘So this is who’ll bore me to tears for the next two months?’ I mean, I love poetry—why else would I be here, eh?—but bloody Victorian? Could anything be worse? Ghastly old men in top hats, big bellies, muttonchops out to here, banging on about the glory of foreign wars and the sanctity of the marriage bed? Frankly, I wanted to slit my own throat.”

   
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