Happily ever after

For many students, university life is a time to acquire the qualifications for your career while drinking large quantities of alcohol. Others are more single-minded, pursuing a special interest or a marriage partner. A few feel called to the academic life. What happens when the worlds of love and scholarship collide? And what are their relative values?

It’s strange how you can overlook people, isn’t it?

I’d sat in lectures with Justin for six months. He was tall, with a neat, crinkly beard and moustache, and he usually wore a sweater and jeans. Other than that I could have told you nothing about him, not even his name, except that his presence in the same lectures as me meant that he was in his first year reading Natural Science. And knowing nothing about him didn’t bother me at all.

I had, after all, come to Cambridge to study, and for the first term and a half I did little else. In Queens’ College, though, you are obliged to dine in Hall occasionally, and there I met Alison. She was tiny, with dark curly hair and a smile that could light up a room. Whenever I became too intense about my work, she would drag me out to the college bar, or a theatre. She even persuaded me to try a disco one evening; not a place you would usually find me!

It was March, and for several weeks now Alison had been talking about white-water kayaking. We were sharing coffee together in my room and I was only half listening. She’d knocked on the door when I was in the middle of trying to complete work for my physics tutorial, and my mind was still on the problem we’d been set.

“So you’ll come then, Nicola?” she asked.

“Yes, okay,” I said, still not listening. Which is why I was surprised when she came to see me on Friday to make sure I hadn’t forgotten that we were going white-water kayaking the following day. Ah!

It sounded like a sport that was everything I hated. Above all, it was cold and it was wet. But Alison was my best friend, and I didn’t want to let her down.

She and I sat near the front of the coach for the two hour journey to Derbyshire.  When we arrived it was grey, and raining with an air of persistence. I was standing near the coach door wondering whether to ask the driver to let me stay in his nice, warm vehicle for the day, and who should climb down the steps but Justin?

He smiled happily at me. “Hello, Nicola! I didn’t know this was your scene?”

What a lovely resonant voice! It gave me goosebumps.

“How do you know my name?” I demanded.

“I thought you looked nice, so I asked around until I found someone who knew you. My name’s Justin. Have you kayaked before?”

“No, this is my first time.”

“Mine too. Should be fun!”

Already we were walking towards the reception.

The instructors were very safety conscious. We had an hour-long lecture, followed by two hours of exercises on dry land before we were allowed near the water. Somehow, Justin and I always seemed to be near each other. His cheerful grin more than compensated for the cold, wet river.

I was tired out after the day, and Justin shepherded me into a window seat on the coach. Oh, how pleasant it was to be back in the warm! As soon as the coach started moving I drifted off to sleep. I didn’t wake up until we were back in Cambridge, when I came to with a start to find my head snuggled onto Justin’s shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind, and, as we climbed off the coach, he said, “Would you like to come to a concert on Wednesday? I just happen to have two tickets.”

To be honest, he could have invited me to the circus (which I loathe), or church (which always makes me cross about peoples’ gullibility) – even to go kayaking again – and I would have said yes. Anything to enjoy that lovely smile beaming at me. I could hardly wait for Wednesday.

There was still work to be done, though, and I poured my energy into that. Being happy seemed to release something inside me. I found I could solve problems that had previously been beyond me. Every time I completed a piece of work I allowed myself five minutes of delight imagining Justin, his merry face, his laugh, and that lovely warm strength that I’d felt cuddled up to him on the coach.

It was a concert of classical music, a string quartet. I don’t know much about music but I think the performance must have been very good. In one piece, the quartet were joined by another cellist, and the piece that they played had me in tears. It was so sad, and yet so beautiful. I never knew such music existed. It felt like heaven imagined by the bereaved for their loved one. I soaked my hankie and Justin lent me his.

We went out for a meal afterwards, and then back to his room. We talked and we talked. And then we kissed. Our first kiss. You’ve kissed people, I’m sure. You know what it’s like. But that first kiss. That was so special. I was trembling by the end, and I think Justin was too.

“It’s two o’ clock. Heavens! I have a lecture in seven hours! Justin, I must go! Thank you for a lovely, lovely evening.”

“Can I see you again? Please?”

For the first time he looked apprehensive, so apprehensive that I stopped and thought properly about my answer. Eventually I said, “I’ve enjoyed tonight more than anything in my life. And I like you more than anybody else I know. I’d hate not to see you again. So why don’t we go out the evening after tomorrow? I’ll think of something, and book it and let you know. You’d better give me your mobile number.” We kissed again. It felt so right…I cycled back to college in a haze of endorphins.

It wasn’t long before our friends referred to us as ‘an item’.

We didn’t see each other over the Easter vac; my parents always went abroad at Easter, and this year was no exception. I took my Kindle loaded with textbooks and my laptop and spent most of the time studying. I felt I had the capability to achieve a first class result, and I didn’t intend to fail through lack of effort. By the end of the vacation I was on course provided I kept working hard. It was a satisfying feeling.

As soon as I’d dropped my suitcase in my room in college, I rushed over to Justin. As he held me close, it felt as though I could relax for the first time since we’d parted. I pressed my face hard against his chest, and luxuriated in his scent. He smelled – reassuring, somehow.

“Did you miss me?” he asked.

“Of course I missed you! Did you miss me?”

“Horribly,” he said. “Every day. Even though you were in France, and I couldn’t touch you, I longed to see you and to hear your voice, but you seemed to be very busy. I would have loved to talk more on Skype.”

“We did talk on Skype,” I said, rather indignantly.

“Twice. In three weeks. I was a starving man, hungering for his beloved’s voice! But, seriously, Nicola, couldn’t you have managed to talk a bit more? I missed you so much.”

“I’m sorry, Justin. I was working hard, you know? Ten hours a day, every day. And Mum and Dad wanted to drag me out to museums and things, too.”

“I understand. I’m ever so proud of how bright you are. I just missed being close.”

“Well, I’m close now.” I lifted my face to his, and we kissed, softly at first, then fiercely. I was caught up by his passionate desire, and wanted nothing more from life than perfect unity with him.

It was a very busy term. I extended my reading on the syllabus to include related topics, so that I knew the context of the subject matter in the curriculum. I made sure that if a topic rested on calculation, I could do the calculation even where the curriculum treated it only qualitatively. At first, Justin and I tried to study together. He never interrupted me, but he would work for an hour and then tiptoe out of the room, spend half an hour in the bar and then tiptoe back. I found it desperately distracting, and after about a week we agreed to study separately.

And then, at last, the exams were over and we could relax. Justin and I went to Queens’ May Ball! We danced. We ate and drank. We listened to a jazz concert. We danced some more. The skies lightened and we breakfasted in the dawn, before taking a punt onto the Backs. The sun shone nearly horizontally, so we were in shade until we reached King’s College. Justin steered us to the west of the river, and used the pole to secure the punt to the bank. And there, in the glory of that summer morning, Justin asked me to marry him.

I looked across at King’s College. Its stonework, normally honey-coloured, was black against a golden sky. I looked down river at Clare College bridge, starkly limned by the sun, with the shadowy river beyond.

The gentle breeze fanned my flaming cheeks without seeming to cool them. I wanted nothing more than to be Justin’s wife; my body yearned for the reassurance of being totally his. But what did he want from marriage? And what would I be able to give?

I tried to say something of this. But, in the face of his desire and commitment, his single-minded love, I was clumsy. I wanted to shout “I love you! Yes! Yes! YES!”, fling myself at him, and live happily ever after.

“But this is the real world, not a fairy tale,” I found myself saying, while thinking ‘How can I say that? What am I doing?’

He looked so hurt. And nothing could have hurt me more than that.

“Have I any grounds for hope?” he asked, “or should I just chuck the ring in the river?”

“Oh, Justin I do love you. It’s just that, well, we haven’t even talked about marriage, or what we want from life.”

“I love you more than anything,” he said softly. “Nothing matters beside that. I just want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

“Can you give me some time to think, please, Justin? And can we talk about it?”

“I would wait for you until the stars fall from the heavens, Nicola, with your love as the prize.”

When I spoke to my mum that evening, I needed to take my courage in both hands.

“I’m afraid I can’t come with you to the States next week.”

“But, darling, we’ve bought your tickets, the hotels are booked; everything’s booked.”

“I’m sorry, but I need to be here.”

“Is it that boy? I knew he was a bad influence on you!”

“Justin has asked me to marry him.”

“Don’t be silly! You’re much too young. You’re only nineteen!”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Oh. Good. You haven’t lost all your common sense then.”

“I also told him that I love him. And I do. You must see that I can’t just wave bye-bye and go to America for six weeks.”

“Six weeks really isn’t very long, darling.”

Six weeks is an eternity! It’s only eight hours since I kissed him goodbye at the station and I’m already miserable with loss.

“If it’s alright with you, I shall come home tomorrow and stay at home over the summer. I expect I’ll visit Justin, and I hope he’ll visit me. Would you mind that, Mum?”

Do come with us to the States. It won’t be nearly as much fun for me if you’re not there.”

“For goodness sake, Mum, don’t do this whole guilt-trip thing. You’ll have a great time without me.”

“But I shall be worrying about you the whole time.”

“Now you’re being silly. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum. Bye!”

There was no more talk of marriage over the long vac; I think we both realised that we needed to wait until we were back at uni. We visited each other’s homes, and I met Justin’s parents. I liked them. They were warm, friendly people, and I could see why Justin was so empathetic. And when we were apart, I made a point of talking to Justin on Skype every single day.

The best day of the vacation was the day the exam results came out. Justin was staying with me for a week, and we checked the results together. I had the first that I’d worked so hard for, and Justin, to his own astonishment, had an upper second. I treated us to a visit to the best local restaurant and a bottle of champagne.

As we went home by taxi afterwards, Justin was rather quiet and thoughtful.

We sat drinking coffee together, and he said, “Your parents are quite well off, aren’t they?”

“I suppose they are. I don’t really think about it. So what?”

“We’re…poor, I suppose, really. Mum and Dad have made sacrifices for me to attend Cambridge. I don’t know how much that matters to you?”

“Not. One. Tiny. Bit.” I kissed him, over and over again, until we both got the giggles.

So the long vacation passed pleasantly, and also productively because I read as much as I could about theoretical chemistry. The more I studied, the more I felt that this was my metier. This was the field in which I was going to make my mark. I was delighted to read a number of papers by a Fellow of Queens’ whom I knew supervised second year students.

Consequently, I was deeply disappointed when my Director of Studies told me that someone else was going to supervise me in chemistry. I asked, politely, whether here was any chance that this could be changed? Apparently not.

“Doctor Snell is a specialist in theoretical chemistry, Professor. I’ve been studying that over the long vac, and I’m really keen to follow the subject. I did pass with first class honours, Professor. I know that doesn’t entitle me to any privileges, but I really had hoped…”

“The supervisor to whom we have allocated you is a very able scholar. I’m sure he’ll be more than capable of supervising even someone as overwhelmingly talented as you are. Now, if there’s nothing else?”

I was furious. I was livid. I went straight round to Alison.

“Is he taking any more students this year? After all, there are all sorts of reasons why he might not be taking students. It sounds as though he’s a prolific researcher. Maybe he just doesn’t have time?”

True. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Why don’t you make a few discreet enquiries in the department?” suggested Alison. “Or if you’re feeling particularly brave, talk to the man himself. Who knows? You might be able to persuade him to take you on.”

It was good advice, but I’m not very brave about just walking up and talking to somebody I don’t know.

Justin was incensed on my behalf. “How dare he be sarcastic about your ability? You’re brilliant, Nikki, way better than a second-rater like him.” It was very agreeable to have such fervent support, but in all fairness I had to point out that my Director of Studies was a very distinguished scholar whose publications placed him firmly in the front rank of scientists in the UK.

“Anyway, I shall ask around and see what I can learn about the other students he’s supervising.”

It was only a few days later that he said, “I found out something very interesting about Dr Snell. He has no female students. As far as anybody can remember, he never has had. Apparently, one of his current students says that Snell has said that the female brain can’t cope with a high level of abstraction and that women should stick to organic chemistry, which is like cooking.”

Alison chipped in at this point, and we all had an emotionally satisfying rant about sexism and legal redress and the iniquity of the University authorities employing such a man – although even in the middle of our denunciations I made a mental reservation for Dr Snell; I mean, he was just so brilliant.

I suppose that thought was what spurred my imagination. If I approached the matter as sexism, I certainly wasn’t going to be supervised by Dr Snell. The only way of accomplishing that would be to convince him that I was capable. I’d read his papers very carefully, and it seemed to me that there were areas of weakness. You don’t win hearts and minds by exposing weakness, though, so I needed to find the points where the theory could be extended. Then I would have to do some intensive work to show more clearly how this could be achieved, and find an opportunity to talk to Dr Snell about it.

Alison looked doubtful. “You’re only a second year student. Do you think you can contribute original work in such a difficult field?”

“Nikki’s brilliant!” said Justin. Lovely man! I smiled at him.

“I may be good enough. I shall certainly try. But I don’t have to produce original work; I just need to be able to ask good questions that will show that I am capable of understanding the subject.”

Alison pulled a face. “I guess. But misogyny runs deep.”

But at the beginning of November, my Director of Studies informed me that Dr Snell had asked to supervise me. Joy and delight!

Occasionally during that second year Justin and I discussed marriage.

The first time he described a vision of a family, with several children, and with me as some sort of idealised figure, halfway between a fairy who could grant every wish and an earth-mother nourishing the world with the milk from her breasts and the cooking from her kitchen. That was one of the rare occasions on which we quarrelled…

He was a lot more realistic during our second discussion. He agreed that scholarship was my vocation, ahead of family commitments. He agreed that maybe children weren’t necessary for a happy and fulfilled marriage. I, in my turn, conceded that children weren’t necessarily out of the question provided we could make adequate childcare arrangements.

“All this discussion about the practicalities rather takes the romance out of it,” he grumbled.

“If I marry you, Justin, you’re stuck with me. We have to sort out whether we’ll be able to make it work. And, in any case, there is no way we’re going to marry before we’ve completed Finals.”

He looked at me with big, brown, soulful eyes. “I just love you so much,” he said.

At the end of the second year, I achieved another first; Justin had slipped to a lower second. He wasn’t particularly worried. When we talked about his plans, he said, “I thought I would apply to Addenbrooke’s Hospital to train as a physiotherapist. That will be handy for living near you when you’re doing your PhD. It’s something I rather fancy doing. I think I’ll be good at it; better than at the academic stuff, anyway!”

It was on November 28th that I had the first ‘blanking’ incident. It had been a particularly busy week. It was one o’clock in the morning, and I was looking at how modern numerical methods aligned with molecular orbital theory when I suddenly realised that I hadn’t understood anything on the page. I went back to the beginning and started again. I caught the fringe of meaning, but I couldn’t grasp the core.

“I must be exhausted,” I said to myself. There was dread in my heart as I went to bed. Not finishing that work meant I was starting the next day with a deficit.

I rose at five, made a coffee, and started working immediately. The relief! I understood the paper, and could criticise and develop its arguments. It was as though I had been drowning and then discovered, just in time, that I could swim. By the end of the day I was back on schedule.

Justin wanted to see me the following day. I was rather short with him. There was so much work to do. He kissed me and looked concerned.

“Are you eating properly?”

“Of course I am!” I tried a laugh, but it emerged more aggressively than I intended.

“Will you let me fetch us both a takeaway? You could work while we eat. I’ll just sit quietly; I won’t interrupt, I promise.”

I was hungry, I realised. I’d started without breakfast, and it was now – seven o’clock in the evening? Surely not!

The Chinese meal that Justin brought was delicious, and I felt much better afterwards.

“Here, have a glass of wine,” he suggested.

I hesitated. I was only just in line with my schedule. Could I afford to slow myself down with alcohol? Justin’s face gradually changed, from encouraging to worried. He lowered the glass.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Nikki love?”

“Just because I’m not having a glass of wine? Really, Justin!” I took the glass from his hand, and downed it in one. “All okay!”

Four days later I passed out in the gatehouse. I wasn’t aware of it. As far as I was concerned I’d woken up to find myself in a hospital bed with a drip in my arm and with no memory of how I’d arrived there.

“Nurse! Nurse!” I yelled.

“It’s all right, Nikki. There’s nothing seriously wrong.” Justin was beside me. Thank goodness!

I buried my face in his sleeve and sobbed. “I’m frightened, Justin!”

“I’ve got you, Nikki. Everything’s going to be fine. The doctor says you’ve just been overdoing things. You need rest.”

“But I must study or I’ll fail my Finals!” I struggled to be free of his embrace, and to tear the cannula from my arm.

“You leave that cannula exactly where it is, Miss Hammond. If it’s going to come out – which it isn’t – I shall be the one to remove it.” The nurse was severe. “You’re dehydrated and malnourished. The drip will rehydrate you and give you glucose for energy, and we’ll gradually re-introduce you to proper food. Starting with some soup in five minutes.”

“Am I going to die?”

“Die? Good heavens, no! You’ll be back on your feet in a few days. The nutritionist will see you tomorrow, and give you some advice about proper eating habits.”

“Are you sure I’m going to be okay? I feel so strange.”

“I’m quite sure. Now, here’s Staff Nurse Joy with your soup. I want you to eat it all up, please!”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Not a problem. You eat it anyway.”

I looked at the bowl. Fawn soup, indiscriminate texture. It didn’t tempt me. I looked at Justin. I looked again at the soup. I looked back at Justin, and the corners of his mouth twitched.

“I know how you feel,” he said. “But eat it anyway.”

I took a spoonful. It was savoury, and better than it looked. My tongue remembered that food could sometimes be pleasant. I took another spoonful. When it was finished, I asked if I could have some more.

“Let it digest for an hour or so; your body must become used to food again. You can have another portion at eight o’clock.”

“I’m not sure whether you’ll think this is good news,” said Justin, “but your Mum’s on her way here. She said she’d be with us by about nine o’clock.”

“I must be properly ill then?” I said, doubtfully.

“I’m afraid so. You frightened the life out of poor Alison who was with you when you keeled over.”

“Justin, are they telling me the truth? I am going to recover, aren’t I?”

“Yes, of course you are, love. You shut your eyes, and I’ll hold your hand until your next bowlful of soup comes.”

“I just feel frightened. Hold me tight.”

Justin hugged me, and then gently helped me to be comfortable on my pillow. Soon I dozed.

I won’t go into details of my recovery. There were physicians and nutritionists and physiotherapists and psychiatrists. I was astonished at how weak I had become, and how timid. Justin was a rock. Night and day for the first three days he sat in that chair next to me, comforting me, encouraging me, helping me to understand what was happening to me. I don’t know how I would have coped without him.

My mother helped too. She used her contacts to discover the best psychiatrist for treating anxiety neurosis, and then paid for my treatment by him.

By March I was back at college, but with a strictly limited workload. I stuck to it rigidly. The alternative was a breakdown, I had been told.

I found the exams easy, although I chafed at every question. I knew how much better my answers could have been if I’d been capable of working harder. I also knew enough not to beat myself up over it. To my astonishment I was awarded a starred first. Dr Snell was quick to offer his congratulations. Even better, he offered me a place on his team to work for my PhD.

The real delight, though, is Justin. He achieved a lower second, and has already started training as a physiotherapist.

We’re going to be married in October! I’ve insisted to Mum that it will be a small wedding – but it will be a good one!

 

This moment is perfect

I wrote this poem when I was reminded by fellow blogger Aayush that a moment, once experienced, cannot be changed. It is in that sense, timeless. We can, if we choose, see it as giving some purpose and significance to our own experience. It made a good starting point for a poem about the love I have been privileged to share in my life.

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As we cling to each other in the darkness

I feel with your body and you with mine.

This moment is perfect.

There are no regrets, no hopes, no strivings.

We have accomplished a small part

Of the purpose of the cosmos.

 

We planned a route; we hoped;

And yet we stumbled here by chance.

The stars will splinter and part us,

Confining this perfection we have wrought

To this one instant.

I feel with your body, and you with mine.

This moment is perfect.

 

 

 

 

That special place

Jim and Liz Nightingale, have just become ‘empty nesters’. This gives them more freedom, of course, but how do they want to use that freedom? Will they enjoy it together, or will they drift apart? And then they holiday together in Greece, in the small city of Nafplio. They bring turbulent emotions to that special place. What will they take away?

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On their first evening in Nafplio, Liz and Jim Nightingale entered Plateia Syntagma, Constitution Square, from the passage beside the archaeological museum. They walked under the majestic plane tree at the entrance to the square, and looked along the row of cafes and shops that stretch the entire length of the north side.

Children played in the square, chasing footballs, riding bicycles and launching ingenious flying toys, whose coloured lights, red, green, and blue, flashed in the dark and silken sky.

The cafes were packed.

A couple stood up to vacate a table right under the plane tree.

“Quick, Jim,” said Liz, nudging him in the direction of the empty seats. Jim resisted.

“Hadn’t we better check out the other cafes before making up our minds?”

Liz pushed past him and sat down firmly. She smiled at him and said, “Nothing could be nicer than this, Jim.”

As the waiter wiped the table, Jim sat down grudgingly in the seat opposite Liz.  She ordered two coffees, in Greek. The waiter smiled and asked, in Greek, whether they would like anything to eat, ice-cream or fruit salad perhaps? Liz declined.

“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the dinner very much, Liz.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, Jim. I was tempted because the taverna seemed much less crowded than the others. I suppose that should have been a giveaway really. But fancy that waiter lecturing you because you didn’t finish your meal, as though you were a naughty child! I admired your restraint!”

Jim slapped at his arm.

“Bother these mosquitoes.”

“Just ignore them, Jim. Have you been bitten yet?”

Jim unbuttoned his sleeve and inspected his forearm.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Good. I shouldn’t like to think we’d put up with the smell of that awful repellent for nothing.” She stretched back against the cushion on the wicker chair. “Isn’t it blissful to sit here warm and comfortable at half past ten in the evening?”

Jim grunted. His shirt was dark with sweat under the armpits.

The following morning, Liz woke early, as usual. She slipped out of bed quietly, not wanting to wake Jim. She looked at him with tender concern. He worked so hard during term-time, and was tired out by the time of the holidays. And now that he was nearing fifty it took him longer to recover.

She dressed, and went lightly out into the sunshine. Her brightly patterned sun-dress fluttered in the breeze.

Now, where was the minimarket? Down this street? And then left. Yes. She bought bread, butter, milk, croissants and oranges. That should do. If Jim fancied a fry-up they could go to one of the cafes later.

As she walked, she thought about the argument she’d had with him a few days earlier, when he’d told her that he wanted to try for a post as deputy head-teacher. ‘What a mess!’ she said to herself. ‘I wish Jim didn’t want this job up in Macclesfield! I’m desperately worried for him. He’s so conscientious, and I’ve seen what the strain of being a head of department has done to his health. But I daren’t tell him that, or he’ll go for the job just to prove that he has the strength for it.”

As they sat eating breakfast, Liz said, “I went into the bus station. There’s a bus to Mycenae at ten o’clock. Shall we visit the archaeological site today, do you think? It was one of the places you particularly wanted to see.”

Jim smiled at her. “Organising me again? You really enjoy finding your way round new places, don’t you?” Liz bit her tongue and said nothing. If she didn’t arrange trips when they were overseas, they wouldn’t do anything at all; and she’d told Jim so only a few days before the holiday.

“Yes, let’s go to Mycenae then.” Jim hesitated a moment, then added, “I do appreciate you doing the planning, you know.”

Jim made an excellent companion for a visit to the antiquities. He was a history teacher with a gift for bringing the past to life. As they strode up the ramp to the Lion Gate his words clattered like armour, and tramped like foot soldiers marching behind their gold-encrusted king. Liz listened intently; she was very aware that the roots of her own discipline of mathematics were largely based on the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers. It was such a pity, she thought, that so much of history was about rulers, wars and battles rather than ideas.

That evening they dined at a taverna away from the seafront. The tables lined a passage between two buildings, and were covered by awnings. Bougainvillea spilled from balconies, making the walls gay with their blooms. Jim seemed preoccupied, then, while they were sharing a Greek salad, he suddenly said, “Can we talk about that possible new job without getting angry, Liz?”

“I’m sure I can. I’m not sure you can, Jim.”

Jim laid his hands on the table, palms down, fingers spread, and looked fixedly at them.

“You see, Liz, when I was passed over for the deputy headship last year I felt hurt, badly hurt.”

Liz laid the fingers of her right hand lightly on Jim’s left hand. “I know, Jim. I know you were.”

“I felt resentful that somebody younger should be given the post, after all the work I’d done for the school. This opportunity that I’ve been told about gives me a chance to put that right.”

“But it’s up north, Jim. I don’t want to leave Sussex, I don’t want to leave our beautiful home, and I don’t want to give up my job. I know I’m only a class teacher, but I love what I do. I turned down an offer of promotion when you were a new head of department so that I could support you. Don’t you think my professional career deserves consideration too?”

The waiter appeared with their main course. Jim was silent. Liz thanked the waiter in Greek, smiling. He smiled back. “You speak good Greek!”

“Just a few words. I’m looking forward to enjoying my meal!”

They ate in silence for a few minutes.

“This is so much better than yesterday’s food,” exclaimed Liz.

“Yes it is, isn’t it? You know, Liz, I really want this job. It’s the best opportunity I’m ever likely to have. It would give me the chance to put some of my ideas into practice instead of just proposing them in staff meetings and having them rejected. Do you grudge me that?”

“Of course not, Jim. But I’m just saying that when we make a decision about it, we must consider everything. It’s not just your job, it’s our lives. There’s the house, and our friends, and the things we do. Don’t these matter to you at all?”

Jim laid down his cutlery.

“Well, of course they matter, but the job is so important, Liz. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that my work is what gives meaning to my life.”

There was silence. The waiter, from his station by the door, looked to see whether they were ready for him to clear the main course.

Liz spoke quietly. “So what meaning do I have in your life, Jim? What about Clive and Susan our children?”

Jim gestured impatiently. “You know I didn’t mean that, Liz!”

“Clive is newly married. Sue is expecting her first baby – our first grandchild, Jim – and you sit there and tell me that your work is what gives meaning to your life. I’m astonished. I’m astonished and deeply disappointed.”

The waiter approached. “Have you finished. Didn’t you like the food?”

“I’m sorry. The food was very good, but we’re – thinking of other things, I’m afraid. Jim, have you had enough?”

Jim waved away the plate.

”Well, I want a coffee. How about you?”

“I suppose so. Yes. Thank you.”

“Two coffees, please. No sugar.”

“So what do you want, Liz? If you don’t want me to try for promotion?”

“I just want to see more of you, Jim. Let’s have some fun in the evenings. Play bridge with friends. Go to the pub.”

“And when would we do that, Liz? You’re always with that chap Frank, fund raising for your precious operatic society.”

“I’d be happy to do less of that if I could see more of you, you know. And I’ve been trying to persuade you to find a date for a romantic dinner ever since you cancelled our anniversary dinner!”

“You’re still holding that against me?”

“I’m not holding anything against you. I’m just pointing out that I’m trying to see more of you. I would prefer you to be giving less time to your work rather than more. And a new job would demand more of your time for years. What’s in it for me, Jim?”

“You were very attracted to Frank once, weren’t you? And he moved down south a few years after we did. Don’t tell me he didn’t choose where to live with no thought of you!”

Liz went white.

“How dare you. How dare you! I have never been unfaithful to you. Never! Now go away. And don’t imagine you’re sharing my bed tonight. You can sleep in the spare room. That should suit you; you can have the air-conditioning on all night and bolt and bar the windows against those mosquitoes who terrify you so much!”

Jim stood up.

“You’ve got the cash to settle up?”

Liz nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

Jim gave her one final look, and pushed his way between the other tables. Liz sat still. The waiter came over to collect the cups.

“I’d like another coffee, please.”

“Straightaway.”

A little away from her, the staff had arranged tables to accommodate a party. It looked like four generations of a family; a young couple with a toddler and a babe in arms; four adults in middle life, and an old lady, dressed in black, but laughing heartily, and downing glassfuls of retsina in a single draught.

‘Why can’t our life be like that?’ wondered Liz. She shook her head.

She wandered to the seafront, sat down at the cafe ‘Napoli di Romania’, and ordered an ouzo, without ice. The small boats rocked and bumped against the harbour wall, bouncing on the waves. It was breezy and some of the locals were wearing cardigans, but Liz didn’t feel cold. She looked across at the Bourzi, the island fort, illuminated by floodlights. She looked beyond, and saw the lights of shops and houses and cars a few miles away on the far side of the Gulf of Argos.

She took a large swallow of ouzo. The taste and the warmth filled her mouth and spread down into her stomach. Had she been rather hasty in assuming Jim was accusing her of infidelity?

“Oh, bother the man!” she said.

The couple on the next table looked round, and she realised she’d spoken out loud. She didn’t know whether to feel irritated, embarrassed or amused; so she took another gulp of ouzo.

It occurred to her that there were things she’d never done on holiday, feeling herself constrained by Jim’s preferences.

‘Stuff him!’ she thought, being very careful not to open her mouth this time. Even so, she glanced at the couple next to her as if they could somehow have overheard.

The cocktail bar on the main street was packed with youngsters, young men in tee shirts and dark, tight jeans; young women dressed as though for carnival. Liz, using a blend of tenacity and charm, found herself a seat and ordered a Manhattan.

About one-thirty in the morning the music became more rhythmic and louder. Liz had nearly finished her third Manhattan, and was chatting in Greek to a man in his mid-forties.

“Come on,” he said, suddenly rising to his feet, “Let’s dance!”

Liz looked up at him, startled, then she smiled and stood up.

She was a good dancer; and so, she realised, was he. Deducing that some of his steps were from traditional dance, she copied him. Some of the young folk started to cheer and clap. She suddenly understood that some of his steps were meant for the man, and looked at him for a cue as to what she should do. With hand gestures, he indicated appropriate movements. She attempted them, laughing out loud with delight.

People stopped in the street to watch. The bar staff joined in with the clapping. Onlookers took up the dance.

The music stopped. The crowd applauded. Liz’s partner seized her round the waist and held her tightly against him. His face pressed against hers, as he sought her mouth with his.

Liz was very tempted. Her body throbbed. Excitement filled her in a way she’d completely forgotten. Nevertheless, “No,” she said. The man looked at her in surprise and disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” said Liz. “I don’t want anything more than the dancing.” She looked him very directly in the eye, and hoped that her ability to maintain discipline in the classroom would be sufficient to keep him at arm’s length. For a few seconds longer he held her, then released his grip.

He bowed.

“Then I must respect your wish, madam. You are an excellent dancer; thank you! And you are very beautiful.” He sounded wistful.

He strolled away. Liz watched his trim figure become lost in the throng.

‘Liz Nightingale, you are a little drunk. It’s time to go home.’

Despite the neatness with which she had danced, Liz found it difficult to walk steadily. The streets became narrower and darker. Liz was not a nervous person, but it crossed her mind that walking alone in the back streets of a foreign city at two in the morning was possibly not the wisest thing she had ever done.

The steps up to the apartment were steep and uneven. She stumbled and bruised her shin.

“Ow! Ouch! Bugger!” The exclamations were (more or less) sotto voce. Then she giggled, and sat on the step rubbing her leg until the pain eased.

She fumbled with the key as she tried to insert it in the dark. “Don’t drop it, Liz,” she muttered. Even when she finally had it in the lock, it didn’t want to turn. “If Jim’s locked the door, I’m going to make a lot of noise!” Then she remembered that she had the key to the side door, not the front door. She was giggling again as she sneaked in.

The door to the second bedroom was closed, and she could hear the air conditioning running. She went into the main bedroom and switched on the light. The empty bed was a melancholy sight, with her half-unpacked suitcase sitting on it. Jim’s suitcase had gone. Liz looked into the wardrobe. His clothes weren’t there. “Sulking. How childish.” She enunciated the words very clearly, but they still sounded slurred. She moved her suitcase onto his side of the bed, pulled off her clothes and lay on the bed. She was asleep within seconds.

“Jim. Make me a coffee, love, would you…” She opened her eyes. Jim wasn’t there. She was curled up next to her own untidy suitcase. It was hot, the sun outside was brilliant. Her mouth was dry and sticky, with an unpleasant taste. Her head throbbed. She fumbled in the case for her dressing gown.

As she ran herself a glass of water she noticed that the door to the second bedroom was ajar, and the air conditioning wasn’t running. Jim had gone out.

She was on her second coffee and third glass of water, just beginning to feel that some dry toast might stay in her stomach, when Jim returned. He looked at her, slumped dishevelled and pasty-faced at the dining table.

“I packed some Alka-Seltzer. Would you like some?”

“Mmm. Horrid taste, but yes, it would probably be a good idea.”

As she sipped the Alka-Seltzer, Jim said, “Can I make you some toast? Perhaps with a little honey?”

“No honey in the cupboard.” She massaged her throbbing temples.

“I’ve bought some. And some peaches.”

Liz looked up. Peaches were her favourite. Jim held one out for her to inspect. It looked delicious, and felt perfectly ripe. She took the fruit and bit into it. The sweet juice dribbled down her chin; the perfume of the fruit filled her mouth and nose.

“I’ll make the toast,” said Jim, handing Liz a tissue, and laying a plate on the table in front of her.

“There’s a bus to Argos every half hour,” he said. “It goes from outside the booking office. I thought we might go there today, if you’re feeling up to it?”

Liz wiped her mouth.

“Jim,” she said, “We’ve got to talk. We can’t just pretend yesterday didn’t happen.”

“Do you feel well enough for that?”

Liz recognised the concern in his voice.

“I dare say I’ll cope somehow.”

“Liz, I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean to imply that there was anything – improper – between you and Frank. But I dislike the man, and, well, I’m a bloke and I get jealous. You’re very precious to me, Liz.”

Liz folded her arms, and sat in silence. The noise of cicadas clattered in through the open window.

“That’s not actually enough, Jim,” she said at last. “You as good as accused me of being unfaithful to you. In my book that’s the worst insult of all. I try to live a life of integrity, and you tell me that you think I may have cheated you in the most profound way possible. Don’t you understand at all who I am?”

Jim sank onto one of the chairs. He looked out of the window, his gaze fixed far beyond the trees that bordered the terrace. He thought back over their life together. He couldn’t remember a single occasion when Liz had acted without integrity. And he’d only half-noticed. How could he have taken her so much for granted?

He cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry, Liz. I know there’s nothing between you and Frank, and that you’ve never been unfaithful. I should never have said what I did. Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true.”

They sat in silence a while longer, and then Jim said, “I heard you come in last night. I was concerned about you. I crept into the bedroom. You’d left the curtains open, and the moon was shining brightly. You were asleep, and you looked so beautiful. I’d been feeling angry, but when I saw you, and realised again how much I love you…” He stopped to steady his voice.

“Come here, Jim,” said Liz softly. She held him gently and waited for the pain to ease.

“I got very drunk last night, Jim. I went to the cocktail bar and made an exhibition of myself dancing in the street. And the Greek who’d been dancing with me tried to kiss me. Luckily for me he understood that no means no. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have done that.”

Jim nodded. “It certainly wasn’t sensible. It could all have got out of hand.”

“Yes, I know. Still, I’m paying for it now; at least for the drunk bit. Why are hangovers so much worse when you’re older? Let’s give Argos a miss today; I don’t fancy too much bright sunlight for a while. Perhaps we could visit the archaeological museum today?”

“Sounds good. I hope you’ll be fit by tomorrow, though.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I bought tickets for ‘Antigone’ at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.”

“Oh, Jim, that’s fantastic! Thank you! Oh, wow!”

Jim grinned. “I hoped that would please you!”

They spent a quiet day. Pizza for lunch at Café Kentrikon, a visit to the museum, a siesta. In the evening they crossed the peninsular and then strolled under the pine trees, with their heavy, resinous scent, around the promontory, and out along the breakwater. As they walked back along the harbour front, they mingled with smart Greeks wearing their best summer outfits, and with cheerful Dutch families, and chic French couples. Liz led Jim to ‘Napoli di Romania’.

“Here’s where I started my binge,” she confessed cheerfully.

“I expect you’d prefer a soft drink tonight. A fresh orange juice, perhaps?”

“Actually, Jim, I would prefer an ouzo. I can drink orange juice anytime, but I don’t have many opportunities to enjoy ouzo by the wine-dark sea. Ouzo, please.”

As they sipped their drinks, and nibbled the peanuts that had come with the ouzo, the sun sank towards the mountains in a blaze of rose-gold glory. The sea was completely calm, stretching before them like turquoise-grey lacquer, highlighted with gilding.

“You know, Jim, we’re going to have to sort out this business of the job. I don’t want to stop you applying. If you decide to try for it and succeed, I will go with you and support you. But I think we should be very careful in weighing up the pros and cons. And, in all fairness, I think we should consider my career as well as yours.”

They looked at the people walking along the promenade, showing off to each other.

“Thank you, Liz. I appreciate the support. Having thought about it last night, I agree that we need to take everything into consideration.”

They reached simultaneously for the nuts, and then both laughed.

“After you,” said Jim.

“No, go on Jim. They’re more your thing than mine.”

Jim helped himself.

In front of them, the strolling crowds played out in miniature the pageant of life in all its diversity, joy and angst. Pride, love, self-regard were all there.

“I haven’t given you all my reasons for being wary of this job, Jim.” Liz took a deep breath. This was a gamble, she felt, but one that in the present circumstances was worth taking. “I think that you would make an excellent head-teacher. I admire your ideas, and I admire the heck out of your ability to inspire people. The thing is…”

She paused. The last sliver of the sun slipped below the mountain peak; the western sky glowed even as the sky above them darkened. Jim waited quietly.

“The thing is, Jim, I’m afraid of what the effort would do to you physically. Being head of department affected you badly, and I fear this would be even worse.”

Jim put his hands behind his head, and reclined in the rattan chair.

“I hate to admit it,” he said, “But I think you’re probably right. It was my only concern about the post.”

The waiters were lowering the awnings, and Jim had to bend his head to avoid the canvas.

“Liz? You won’t think I’m a…failure, if I don’t try for this post? I feel it would somehow be letting you down.”

“A failure, Jim? I would never feel you were a failure! Your example has inspired me throughout my career, not to mention our marriage. And, Jim. I want to say I’m sorry. I was horrid to you last night. I said some nasty, vicious things. I’m really sorry.”

They clasped hands. The last light faded in the west; but the whole evening stretched before them.

 

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Nepal 71: Three Hundred Dollars

This is a thought-provoking conversation between someone trekking in Nepal and one of the local guides. If you’re interested in what it’s like to trek in Nepal, this is an excellent blog to follow. The discomforts and hazards, as well as the satisfactions are all vividly described.

thisisyouth

The conversation between Sol and I drifted off as a hailstorm rolled into town. Watching from our table by the window, we saw hail start to fall. A few excitable young kids ran outside, screaming “snow!”

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