My Oxford Year
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While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
Robert Browning, “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad,” 1845
The customs agent beckons the person in front of me and I approach the big red line, absently toeing the curling tape, resting my hand on the gleaming pipe railing. No adjustable ropes at Heathrow, apparently; these lines must always be long if they require permanent demarcation.
My phone, which I’ve been tapping against my leg, rings. I glance at the screen. I don’t know the number.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Is this Eleanor Durran?”
“This is Gavin Brookdale.”
My first thought is that this is a prank call. Gavin Brookdale just stepped down as White House chief of staff. He’s run every major political campaign of the last twenty years. He’s a legend. He’s my idol. He’s calling me?
“Sorry, I—I’m here,” I stammer. “I’m just—”
“Have you heard of Janet Wilkes?”
Have I heard of—Janet Wilkes is the junior senator from Florida and a dark-horse candidate for president. She’s forty-five, lost her husband twelve years ago in Afghanistan, raised three kids on a teacher’s salary while somehow putting herself through law school, and then ran the most impressive grassroots senatorial campaign I’ve ever seen. She also has the hottest human-rights-attorney boyfriend I’ve ever seen, but that’s beside the point. She’s a Gold Star Wife who’s a progressive firebrand on social issues. We’ve never seen anyone like her on the national stage before. The first debate isn’t for another two weeks, on October 13, but voters seem to love her: she’s polling third in a field of twelve. Candidate Number Two is not long for the race; a Case of the Jilted Mistress(es). Number One, however, happens to be the current vice president, George Hillerson, whom Gavin Brookdale (if the Washington gossip mill is accurate) loathes. Still, even the notoriously mercurial Brookdale wouldn’t back a losing horse like Wilkes just to spite the presumptive nominee. If nothing else, Gavin Brookdale likes to win. “Of course I’ve heard of her.”
“She read your piece in The Atlantic. We both did. ‘The Art of Education and the Death of the Thinking American Electorate.’ We were impressed.”
“Thank you,” I say, gushing. “It was something I felt was missing from the discourse—”
“What you wrote was philosophy. It wasn’t policy.”
This brings me up short. “I understand why you’d think that, but I—”
“Don’t worry, I know you have the policy chops. I know you won Ohio for Janey Bennett. The 138th for Carl Moseley. You’re a talented young lady, Eleanor.”
“Call me Gavin.”
“Then call me Ella. No one calls me Eleanor.”
“All right, Ella, would you like to be the education consultant for Wilkes’s campaign?”
“Yes!” I bleat. “Yes, of course! She’s incredible—”
“Great. Come down to my office today and we’ll read you in.”
All the breath leaves my body. I can’t seem to get it back. “So . . . here’s the thing. I—I’m in England.”
“Fine, when you get back.”
“ . . . I get back in June.”
“Are you consulting over there?”
“No, I have a . . . I got a Rhodes and I’m doing a—”
Gavin chortles. “I was a Rhodie.”
“I know, sir.”
“What are you studying?”
“English language and literature 1830 to 1914.”
“Because I want to?” Why does it come out as a question?
“You don’t need it. Getting the Rhodes is what matters. Doing it is meaningless, especially in literature from 1830 to 19-whatever. The only reason you wanted it was to help you get that life-changing political job, right? Well, I’m giving that to you. So come home and let’s get down to business.”
A customs agent—stone-faced, turbaned, impressive beard—waves me forward. I take one step over the line, but hold a finger up to him. He’s not even looking at me. “Gavin, can I call—”
“She’s going to be the nominee, Ella. It’s going to be the fight of my life and I need all hands—including yours—on deck, but we’re going to do it.”
He’s delusional. But, my God, what if he’s right? A shiver of excitement snakes through me. “Gavin—”
“Listen, I’ve always backed the winning candidate, but I have never backed someone who I personally, deeply, wanted to win.”
“Miss?” Now the customs agent looks at me.
Gavin chuckles at my silence. “I don’t want to have to convince you, if you don’t feel—”
“I can work from here.” Before he can argue, I continue: “I will make myself available at all hours. I will make Wilkes my priority.” Behind me, a bloated, red-faced businessman reeking of gin moves to squeeze around me. I head him off, grabbing the railing, saying into the phone, “I had two jobs in college while volunteering in field offices and coordinating multiple city council runs. I worked two winning congressional campaigns last year while helping to shape the education budget for Ohio. I can certainly consult for you while reading books and writing about them occasionally.”
“Miss!” the customs agent barks. “Hang up the phone or step aside.” I hold my finger up higher (as if visibility is the problem) and widen my stance over the line.
“What’s your set date for coming home?” Gavin asks.
“June eleventh. I already have a ticket. Seat 32A.”
“Miss!” Both the customs agent and the man bark at me.
I look down at the red line between my sprawled feet. “Gavin, I’m straddling the North Atlantic right now. I literally have one foot in England and one in America and if I don’t hang up they’ll—”
“I’ll call you back.”
What does that mean? What do I do? Numbly, I hurry to the immigration window, coming face to face with the dour agent. I adopt my best beauty-pageant smile and speak in the chagrined, gee-whiz tone I know he expects. “I am so sorry, sir, my sincerest apologies. My mom’s—”
“Passport.” He’s back to not looking at me. I’m getting the passive-aggressive treatment now. I hand over my brand-new passport with the crisp, unstamped pages. “Purpose of visit?”
“For how long will you be in the country?”
I pause. I glance down at the dark, unhelpful screen of my phone. “I . . . I don’t know.”
Now he looks up at me.
“A year,” I say. Screw it. “An academic year.”
“Oxford.” Saying the word out loud cuts through everything else. My smile becomes genuine. He asks me more questions, and I suppose I answer, but all I can think is: I’m here. This is actually happening. Everything has come together according to plan.
He stamps my passport, hands it back, lifts his hand to the line.