My Oxford Year
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I glance back to Tom. “And now?”
“Oh, no one will have me now.” He leans in and nudges my shoulder with his knobby elbow. “Story of my life, eh?”
I think I’m understanding this. “So you don’t go here anymore?”
“He’s actually become quite the popular tutor!” Maggie enthuses. “Helping people apply to Oxford!”
Tom’s open face turns wry. “I can teach ’em how to get in, just not how to get out.”
He laughs, Maggie reciprocates, and I nod, murmuring, “Cool, cool.” I look back to the bike. “So what are you thinking?”
“At present? In general?”
This is what happens when you’re the book equivalent of the crazy cat lady. “The price. What do you want for it?”
He chews his lip. “Forty quid.” I pause, considering. I open my mouth to accept and Tom blurts, “All right, all right, you drive a hard bargain. Thirty.”
I smile. “Done!” I dig into my pocket for cash.
He claps his hands and jumps up. “Spiffing!” I hand him the money and he clears a path so he can wheel the bike out into the vestibule, down the stairs, and onto the street. We follow him. I look back at Maggie. I have to do something. “Tom?”
“Yes?” He’s bent over the bike, examining some invisible flaw. He licks his finger and wipes at it.
“Maggie and I are meeting Charlie for tea. Would you like to join?”
His face lights up. “Spiffing!” He swings one long giraffe leg over Duchess, mounting her like a prize stallion. “Parsonage?”
Maggie and I look at each other. Maggie takes this one. “Tom. Ella would like to ride her bike now.”
“Right!” He guffaws. “Just warming the seat.” He dismounts and gallops up the stairs, calling, “I’ll just grab Pippa!”
As he disappears inside, Maggie crosses to her bike and begins unlocking it. There’s a silence. She clearly wants to say something. She doesn’t.
“I can’t thank you enough,” I say. “It’s perfect.” She nods and smiles politely as we climb onto our bikes. She seems to be avoiding my gaze. I wonder if I’ve overstepped something. “Sorry if I . . . I probably shouldn’t have just invited him to tea, considering—”
But Maggie shakes her head. “No, no. That’s why I was coming here in the first place. To invite him. The battery on his mobile always dies, you see. He can go days without realizing no one’s called him.” Her tone is easy, but she still doesn’t look at me.
I test the waters. “I’ve never met anyone like him. He’s very . . . unique.”
She finally looks at me, chewing her bottom lip, seemingly on the verge of a confession. “I don’t know quite what it is. He’s a bit doglike, really. As you saw, ready to be loved by anyone willing to give him a pat. It can be quite annoying, actually.”
I smile, understanding where Maggie’s coming from. “He did the same thing to you when you first met him?”
There’s a moment of silence and something crosses Maggie’s face. “No.”
“No. He didn’t.” She looks away. “Sorry. He just . . . gets to me.”
Now I really understand where Maggie’s coming from. “I can tell.”
She sighs, reddens. “He does it with everyone! Literally everyone! Just not me. It’s baffling. And maddening. And embarrassing! Sorry.” She straightens her back, aligns her dress, smooths her cardigan, regathers her pride.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
“Charlie says I should consider myself lucky. I mean, don’t misunderstand, he loves Tom, but—”
I shake my head. “It’s not about anyone else. If you want it, you should go for it.”
“Oh God, no.” Her eyes bug. She pauses, shakes her head, and groans, “He’s just so damn sexy.”
While that wouldn’t be my takeaway from an encounter with Tom, to each her own. We look at each other again and both of us smile. I like this girl a lot. We already have each other’s back. To protect, not stab. That’s universal sisterhood, no matter which country you come from.
Tom returns while Maggie’s describing the adjacent park to me. I notice him staring at her. It’s the first time I’ve seen him really look at her. She looks lovely right now, lit by the dappled late-afternoon sun filtering through the oak tree above her.
“Mags?” Tom says.
She turns from the park. “Yes, Tom?”
He considers her. “Your hair.”
Her hand primps the right side of her pink beehive, and she flushes. I could make some popcorn and watch them all day. “Yes?” she gently prods.
This is it. This is where he takes the plunge and asks her out, and I will tell this story in my toast at their wedding.
Tom leans in and peers at the left side of her head, almost quizzically. “You’ve a spot of bird shite in your hair.”
This love, wrong understood,
Oft’ turned my joy to pain;
I tried to throw away the bud,
But the blossom would remain.
John Clare, “Love’s Pains,” 1844
Given the lovely turn of your figure, it’s quite gratifying you’re not one of those dreadful American girls who subsist entirely on lawn clippings and glacier water,” Charlie says.
My mouth is too full of scone to reply.
The four of us—Maggie, Tom, Charlie, and I—are settled on the charming patio of the Old Parsonage Hotel, having tea. This is Tea with a capital T. There’s a three-tiered china platter filled with sandwiches on the bottom, scones, preserves, and cream in the middle, and bite-sized desserts on top. I haven’t had afternoon tea since Ashley Carmichael’s obsession with Alice in Wonderland forced me to spend her eighth birthday sipping pink tea out of tiny plastic cups, wearing a stupid hat, and being creeped out by a middle-aged guy in a dirty White Rabbit costume. This is better.
Tom, picking cranberries out of his scone, looks up, his attention drawn to something beyond our table. “Say, Charlie? Isn’t that your rower?”
We follow Tom’s gaze to one of the waiters (a strapping, square-jawed guy), refilling water glasses three tables over.
“In time.” Charlie sighs.
Maggie’s forehead crinkles. “But you fancied him last term,” she says, as if it were another lifetime. “Surely you—”
“He’s not ready.”
“As if that’s ever stopped you!” Tom guffaws.
Charlie shakes his head. “No, I need must tread carefully with this one. He still fears condemnation from his awful rower mates. He has months yet of realizations and dire haircuts. He’s only just begun experimenting with colored trousers. So . . .” Charlie puts down his teacup and looks at me. “Considering you’ve been here all of twenty-four hours, and as I witnessed a sordid portion of them and can assume that they were not amongst your finest, how do you already know our delectable lecturer Mr. Davenport?”
I smirk at Charlie. “Is this why you asked me to tea?”
“No!” Maggie assures me just as Charlie says, “Obviously.”
It starts drizzling, but no one seems bothered. Maggie slides the tiny bowl of clotted cream farther under the protection of the dessert plate. Priorities.