Authors: Pippa Croft
To John and Charlotte
‘Here you are then, Miss Cusack. Wyckham College.’
‘Um … thanks, Roger.’
My voice sounds heavy with sleep as the driver lowers the tinted screen that has separated us since we pulled away from the parking lot at Heathrow. I must have dozed off because the last thing I remember was being surrounded by stationary cars on some four-lane motorway that led out of the airport. My heart had sunk into my Ralph Lauren flats as I’d watched the factory chimneys belching smoke into a pewter-coloured sky.
And I’d thought: So this is
? I had to fight tooth and nail to get here and, even if I end up hating the place, there’s no going back.
Two hours later, we’re finally here. I push the button and the rear passenger window whooshes down. Instantly, cold rain spatters my face and I know the make-up I reapplied in the 747’s washroom will have to be touched up.
The hell of the motorway has melted away, replaced by a Jacobean building four floors high with a grand entrance lodge at the centre. Just down the street I can see the Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian Theatre,
guarded by grotesque stone heads. I’ve checked them out a hundred times on the internet and imagined standing before them them more times than you could believe, but seeing them in the flesh makes my pulse race.
Roger appears at the limo door, holding it back like I’m royalty. He shoots a knowing smile at me from beneath his peaked cap and I hope he’s not going to doff it or anything.
‘Shall I unload your bags, Miss Cusack?’
‘That would be perfect, thanks, but,
, call me Lauren.’ I know this is probably pointless, because I tried it as soon as Roger greeted me in Arrivals.
‘Yes, Miss Cusack.’
Russet leaves swirl around my ankles as I swing my legs out of the car to avoid the pooling water in the gutters. Naturally, I wanted to take a cab from Heathrow, but my father said the car was ‘non-negotiable’ and when Dad uses that phrase I may as well try to pull the moon from the sky. The uniformed chauffeur I can just about handle; the limo no, but Dad didn’t seem to care that I would arrive looking like a crack dealer rather than a grad student.
Roger is back with a huge black umbrella. ‘I think you’ll find this useful, miss.’ His thoughtfulness is just in time because the rain has already begun to soak into my Calvin Klein jeans and the fitted jacket I bought for a White House garden party this spring but never got to wear. Would you believe I changed outfits
times before I settled on something that would take me from transatlantic flight to Oxford grad student? In the end,
my mother actually sat on the driveway in the Cayenne, tooting the horn until I officially Left the Building.
Rain drums on the umbrella as I take in Wyckham. The facade is the colour of ochre, crumbling a little in places but I have to admit it looks pretty. In spite of the deluge, I’m itching to get out my watercolours and capture the scene, but Roger has the trunk of the limo open, and in less than thirty seconds people have to sidestep what appears to be the whole autumn/winter stock of Louis Vuitton. Anyone would think I’d immigrated to Oxford permanently, not come for just one year, and while it looked great as the flight staff checked it in Washington, here I have to admit it seems a little showy next to the battered suitcases and cardboard boxes of the other students.
Roger lurks by the kerb, a little red-faced after unloading my stuff. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to move the car, Miss Cusack. There’s a traffic warden over there and I don’t want a ticket. I’ll find somewhere to leave the limo and walk back to help you move your bags into college.’
I flash him the Lauren Cusack smile, the one that finally made Dad give his blessing to me doing my master’s at Oxford and not in the States. ‘No, really, it’s fine, thanks. I’ll handle this from now.’
‘Whatever you say, miss, but shall I at least go into the Lodge and find someone to help you with your luggage?’
‘I’m good, but thanks. You go now.’
He hesitates, but then nods. ‘As you wish, Miss Cusack.’
It crosses my mind to correct the Miss Cusack one
last time, but I decide to make a tactical withdrawal. Instead, I dig my wallet out of my new Kate Spade tote and hope twenty pounds will be enough. In Washington, I’m an expert at tipping. My ex, Todd, once told me I should get an honorary Master of Gratuities, which, take it from me, he didn’t mean as a compliment.
‘Thank you very much, miss.’ His eyes widen somewhat as he pockets the twenty, and half a minute later the limo nudges into the stream of traffic, leaving me with my luggage mountain for company.
Telling myself that the fluttering in my stomach definitely
anticipation, I check out the students swarming in and out of the lodge and wonder how I’m going to get my things inside before they’re soaked through.
It’s only then I realize Roger left his umbrella behind. Call it serendipity because the rain is almost horizontal now, with mini leaf tornadoes dancing round my legs. People swirl around me and the smell of exhaust fumes fills my nostrils as a bunch of vehicles pulls up alongside the kerb.
There aren’t any other limos, but a young guy in a mud-spattered Range Rover is fighting it out with a Jaguar over a gap that I’m sure wouldn’t hold a rickshaw. Just when I think the Jaguar will win, the Range Rover takes it, slotting inch-perfect between the tail and nose of the two parked cars.
I’d really love to see who the speed king is so I step forward to get a better look as a dark-haired guy unfastens his safety belt, opens the driver door and jumps down. Damn! My umbrella chooses the wrong moment
to blow inside out, and by the time I get it under control he’s striding towards the Lodge. All I get is a back view – but
a back view. Despite the rain and wind, he’s in a deep-blue polo shirt that shows off a fabulous set of guns, and shoulders that look like they could carry the weight of the world.
He disappears through a gate set in the Lodge’s oak door. He seemed about the right age for a grad student, or maybe a little older. Either way I already hope I bump into him again. Not that I’m here to hook up with anyone; it’s too soon after Todd and I split up and the last thing I want to do is screw up my master’s by getting involved with someone new. Still, it sure would be great to see if his face matches up to that physique …
The screech of bicycle brakes sets my teeth on edge.
The shout is followed by a crash as the rider clips one of my bags and swerves, wobbling dangerously, then the girl manages to stop her bike from falling over.
‘Oh God, I
‘Me too. I’m blocking the sidewalk.’
‘And I shouldn’t have been riding on it, but the roads are packed with fuck-wit parents today.’ She pushes her long dark-brown hair out of her eyes and rearranges her pink wrap round her neck. With a brief smile, the girl cycles off, her hair and pink wrap flying behind her.
Whew, I think, that was a close shave, but at least I haven’t killed anyone on my first day.
Rain falls heavier now, wetting my face and bags.
Somewhere in my tote I have the new student notes they sent me …
There was nothing for it but to leave most of my luggage on the sidewalk while I dashed into the Lodge and picked up the welcome pack, the keys to my room and directions on how to find it. When the porter suggested I get a trolley, it took me a couple of seconds to realize he meant one of the wheeled carts parked around the edge of the quad. It’s now piled high with my bags as I bump it over the uneven flagstones towards the staircase that will be my home for the next year.
I love the rich colour of the Jacobean stone, which is blackened with the grime of age here and there. I guess they have as much of a problem with pollution in Oxford as in Washington, and why wouldn’t they? To the left of the Lodge, opposite the steps that lead up to the Great Hall, there’s an archway with roman numerals painted above it. This must be it.
A skinny guy who looks about twelve passes by and I take the chance to ask him: ‘Hi. Do you know which floor room ten is on?’
He grimaces. ‘Top, I’m afraid.’
Through the archway I see a twisted wooden staircase. ‘Oh dear.’
He glances at the trolley and back at the stairs. ‘Want a hand?’
‘Please don’t go to the trouble for me.’
‘It’s no problem.’
‘If you’re sure, that would be great.’
As we shift my bags from the trolley to the foot of the staircase, my eye is caught by a board hung on the wall inside the archway. It lists the name of each occupant by each room number, freshly painted in copperplate letters:
‘L. Cusack’, plain and simple. Not little Laurie (grandparents), or ‘Sugar’ or ‘Honey’ or ‘Baby’ (my parents and Todd too. Need I say more?).
Even with the help of the geek, it takes an age to drag my bags up to my room and a phone call meant my helper had to leave sooner than he thought. I’m hauling the last of my stuff into the room when a face I recognize appears at the top of the staircase.
It’s the cycle girl, the pashmina still draped around her neck. ‘Oh, hello again!’
I smile, a little awkwardly. ‘Hi … I’m glad you’re OK.’
She scrunches up her face in embarrassment. ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m always falling off my bike and there’s no damage done. I should have known better than to ride down the pavement that close to college, but the roads are so busy at the start of term, and some of the driving is crazy.’
I think back to the Range Rover vs Jaguar duel and know what she means.
‘I had to leave my bags on the sidewalk because my driver had to go before he got ticketed.’
‘Wise move on his part, not so easy for you.’ She glances at my luggage mountain and her pretty face lights up. ‘And now it looks like you’re on my staircase.’
‘Yes, if my bags don’t cause the floor to collapse.’
She laughs. ‘I doubt it. The beams have survived five hundred years of parties so I think they can cope now. You don’t plan on having any wild parties, do you?’
I’m not sure what the response to this is, but from the glint in her eye and her air of mischief I think we may have different ideas of wild. ‘Well, you never know …’
‘I do hope so; this staircase needs a bit of livening up, judging by the people I’ve seen hanging around so far. Right bunch of northern chemists and maths nerds, from what I can tell. I’m Imogen Hawthorne by the way, but do call me Immy. Imogen is such a fogeyish name.’
Well, I rather like it, but Immy it is. ‘Lauren Cusack.’
‘So you’re L. Cusack. Are you a fresher? Oh God, I hope you’re not a chemist or a maths nerd …’ She gives me an intent look, checking out my outfit. ‘Although I have to say I’d be amazed if you were.’
. It sounds so weird being a Freshman again, though it’s also perfect because a fresh start is exactly what I wanted. I can be anything I want to be here.
No, I’m not a maths nerd or a fresher. I’m a postgrad, doing a master’s.’
‘History of Art and Visual Culture.’ My heart seems to expand as I say the words out loud, but I try to make my reply matter of fact. Everyone here is smart – everyone’s here to study; maybe this is as much of a dream come true for them as it is for me.
Immy smiles. ‘Lucky you. I’m a Geography finalist. That’s a capital offence here. Freddie insists I spend my whole time sharpening my colouring pencils.’
She doesn’t explain who Freddie is and I don’t like to ask, especially as I get the feeling I’ll hear all about her significant other – or others – soon enough.
‘I came up a couple of days ago because I have Collections tomorrow and I needed to do some revision.’ She nibbles her lower lip and I wonder if she’s nervous despite her apparent confidence. She switches her focus to my bags. ‘Um, do you want a hand with your stuff?’
‘You mean the small European luggage republic?’ I say, conscious of the bags teetering on the trolley.
‘You do seem to have rather a lot, but I suppose you’ve come to stay for the whole year. It is allowed.’
‘I know, but I still think I may have over-packed.’
‘You can never over-pack. I once took eyelash curlers and a bikini on a field trip to the Isle of Skye. I know my tutor thinks I’m a lightweight, but she wears brogues and has a beard so I don’t really think she’s qualified to comment.’
‘Brogues and copious facial hair are exactly how I imagine an Oxford tutor to look,’ I say.
‘Then you won’t be disappointed.’ There’s a twinkle in her eye, as my dad would say, and a naturalness and warmth that makes me feel Immy might be fun to be around.
‘Want to come inside?’ I ask.
‘Yes, why not?’
My bags seem to fill every nook and cranny, and boy does my room have a lot of nooks and crannies. It’s crammed in under the eaves, with sloping ceilings and beams. There’s a single bed against one wall and a desk
under one of the windows set in the sloping roof. The armchairs and night stand are battered, and nothing matches, as if it was bought from a thrift store. In fact, my master bathroom at home is bigger than the whole room, but I don’t care.
After squeezing past my stuff, I manage to get one of the casement windows open.
Four floors down, the flagstones of the college quad frame a lawn as pristine as a golf green. There’s a tower opposite with a bell inside it and the sun has finally broken through a break in the clouds. The way the light falls on the spires, which are shimmering in the haze, puts me in mind of a Turner painting I saw at the Met. Even the weak autumn rays feel warm against my skin as I lean out a little to get a better look at the lead-lined battlements that skirt the college roof.
It’s so beautiful and so exactly what I’ve been dreaming of that I have to swallow a lump in my throat.
‘Can we go out on to the battlements?’ Maybe my voice sounds a little croaky, but Immy doesn’t seem to have noticed, or else she’s a good actress.