Volume 3

Chapter 5

Ophelia enjoyed watching him. Happy, patiently waiting for him to unravel, curious. Only a couple of times that evening had she made sure to widen her eyes–those blue eyes, not so much light as clear, which she sometimes caught knowingly in her reflection–to tell him off when he said something teasingly flippant about the club, many of whom were her friends.
    As she let herself into the stream of dinner, her smile and her cheeks spoke to Charles, but her eyes stared past the easy chatter.
One often forgets that France is the only successful communist country…’

They had steadily all become quite silly and he, with the exhibitionist impertinence of men in-front of women they want to love, felt her stare and was happy to play.
‘Sorry to interrupt’ she gently touched his arm and spoke up ‘we better finish up quick and go meet everyone. We don’t want to be late, Hugo says to be there by ten. Do you mind helping me?’ she motioned towards the kitchen picking up some plates. The boys all stood in staccato ‘No, no, no Ophelia, please sit down. We’ll do it.’
‘No, no, that’s very kind, thank you, I’ll be fine.’
Charles still standing, took the rest of the plates through.

‘I thought that was rather fun?’ she asked, taking the crumble from the oven.Could you get new plates please, they’re in the cupboard, there’ she nodded back.
    He fixed her vacantly, rummaging his silence. ‘Yes, very much, thank you. I…’ and from there did not hear another word, rambling on.

‘A plate please, quick, it’s breaking’ she half turned and grasped. He passed her one and watched as she served. Stood in silence, neither could think of much else. She pulled back her hair to one side and, leaning over, he fell gently into her neck, finding a spot below her ear and kissing her there. He kissed her there again and found another spot, next to the first.

  To be touched so, when one has not felt such loving touch in months! Turned to face him, she sent her hand as envoy. Bringing her fingers to his lips, he tasted their hard warmth, but as he leant closer, she freed the other against his chest and held it there.
    Held there for minute longer, he kissed her crown and in the instant tasted the whole sweet unspoken. His cheeks, already wineful, burned. She was right.

‘…no, the funniest, listen, the funniest thing yah, was that I had gone with Immy, this girl from my old House, to see Nadal at the Hurlingham and she spotted Anechka with her papa. So we went up to say hello and it turns out Immy’s mother is oldest friends with Anechka’s papa and that Anechka’s younger brother, Mitya, had been dating Immy’s youngest sister. So after the tennis, Anechka invited us along to this house party near Parson’s Green and that’s when we figured out we were both going to Churchill.
‘Oh really, how funny’ George laughed with the other two. Peter lying back, listening, caught Charles with a muted question, then a nod, before starting up towards the kitchen ‘Ophelia darling, it smells divine! Is there any cream?’
‘Yes, yes, Peter, patience you greedy boy, it’s coming.’

After dessert the girls stayed a while longer to get ready, insisting the boys go on ahead and that they would catch up, presumably to gossip because, though Ophelia had not told them how she felt, of course they had noticed.

Outside, George decided he was going the other way. He claimed he was too tired to take part in the midnight mischief. He said he had an essay to finish for tomorrow, shook hands and sauntered off. So Charles and Peter made back towards Clifton alone and in the fresh air felt rather jolly.
‘Hey, hey, come on. Ho-hoh ahaha, hey. Well done, she’s a pretty girl. You were red though.’
Charles smiled back, then added ‘Shall we not go on actually? I cannot stand the reeling, they become so particularly…clannish. Shall we just have drinks at mine instead?’
‘Yes, I see what you mean, why not?’

Chapter 6

St John had also made his way out that evening. An invite had come through Benedict, who was down in London, and so, though St John would arrive without introduction, he was expected. He strolled briskly up Whiteladies and Blackboy, then set out across the benighted Downs for Wills Hall.

Past the Oxbridge venerability of the gate post and the lodge, St John remembered how he had been tempted to live in Wills. A rueful draw for those who had failed the Other Two and a status thing for those who could not have even considered applying. He had chosen otherwise and walked unsure along the path, which seemed only to trail into darker grounds, shadowed by large cedars. He called out to a young woman ahead. Perhaps having not recognised him, hearing in his step the slight difference of a stranger, with expectation she had decided herself and turned with a quick, curious smile. Pleasantly, in company for a few evening minutes, they talked about her English degree, her favourite poets.
    As they approached reception, St John thought to ask her something more but instead watched her go warmly into the cold gothic confusion of the hall.

From there he was hailed by Jonathan, whose handshake and pallor had the honesty of a boy of good faith and his lithe build and strawberry hair the look of one. St John found it was always an unexpected and suspiciously extensive network, that of the Anglicans at university. Harmless decent boys and girls from up and down the country, unable to live out their youth; often without the heart to live their faith other than as constraints from upbringing, rather than the privilege of a more chaste and noble soul.

Chatting about people they had in common, they made around the quad to a small door in the far corner. Coming in from the cold, St John could smell the academia which stuffed the rooms; a cozy, squeaky silence, decked with all the jarring trappings which conform old buildings to modern safety; no-slip stairs, new doors, fire extinguishers. Following curiously through the twists and nooks, they came to another small door which fit just about neatly, cramped between the stairs, corridors and mullioned windows. Inside, panelled walls and cabinets were piled tight with old tomes, including an early Encyclopedia. A large oak table, which must have been built in the room, and stiff-backed chairs took up the place.

A few serious-looking young men, a couple he recognised, were already seated; smoke streamed from pipes and evening-long cigars left napping in ashtrays. With a few polite introductions and overreached handshakes, St John was welcomed to take a seat as the cheese and port were passed and carried on passing throughout the speech; the metaphysics of illness–this was indeed a club for serious young men.
    The details too obscure to remember were anyway soon distracted by a short fat man who, huffing in late like a mouse caught in lamplight, squeezing himself right up against the dado rail, feigned fluster. Seated, he stared with attention at the speaker, his dull eyes a quarter-shuttered under bloated lids and half-moon spectacles.

Both unfortunate with and completely fascinated by his neighbour, St John had no longer heard much. Instead, he watched as this man tried to be small, unseen and yet flourish his grotesque person, taking off his coat and his check scarf, leaving only a crumpled bow tied to a frayed collar. His shoes, a tad more russet than oxblood, narrowed, adding to his comic. His cord trousers, once yellow, were now the same tepid colour as his sallow jowls which sagged under a sweaty forehead. His black hair, receding, was tightly combed and thickly curled, long to his nape.
    Pudgy, swarthy, he struck almost Turkish or Balkan but when he later spoke, bellowing with histrionic bonhomie, it was in the perfect tone of an Edwardian little known man-of-letters. An eccentricity allowed to lurk like some ghost or legacy, he gleamed with well-fed and useless knowledge; happily recluse in the maze of just such college halls.
    At some point too, a natty boy in a flannel suit, whose points all carried a Home Counties drawl, pulled out a small, flattering water-colour of the short fat man, smoking in the professorial armchair which presumably furnished his rooms.
    As the hall aspired to the Other Two, so the singular professor and singular student, both intensely enjoyed the upkeep of a university life that was not theirs, both taking Bristol a bit too seriously; slightly less reputed, so all the more odd.

Once they had got through the talk and set dinner, conversation splintered between old members, residents who had nothing else to do but enjoy the port and another quiet night in halls. The evening look to drag and so with unassuming ‘good nights’ St John left quickly to face the bitter walk back.

Despite the unshakeably odd evening, in those winter days St John found Bristol charming. With meaningless mid-year papers written and the week of nigth-after-night parties past, varsity life was cold and slow and he had drifted away from work and much of the pleasures that made up life with others.
    It only took two days for him to realise how much he preferred his own company. Allowing his mind to wander, he spent the empty hours in his rooms, thinking, reading and when his rickety old radiator could not hush the cold’s whisper, a nip of scotch whisky would.

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