At first sight – part V

Jon and Vikki fell for each other at a party in London – the day before Vikki returned home to Australia. They have been writing to each other, and Jon has arranged to visit Vikki in Melbourne within the next few months. But Vikki is settling back into her familiar life, and renewing old friendships. Meanwhile, her abusive ex-partner, Guy, is trying to trace her…

At first sight - Qantas plane 170624

If you’ve missed the earlier chapters,  you can read them here

At first sight

At first sight – part 2

Short Story – At first sight – part III

At first sight – part IV

It was the second morning in a row that the postie had let her down. There was no letter from Jon. It was windy, cold and raining. She shook herself. “Come on, woman! Pull yourself together!”

“Hi, Vikki! Fancy a movie this evening?”

“Dan! I didn’t hear you come in.”

Dan grinned. He and Vikki had been in and out of each other’s houses all the time as kids.

“Sorry! I should have knocked. Anyway, what about this movie? La La Land!”

“Sure, yeah, I’d like that.”

On the way home from the cinema, Dan stopped his car at the kerbside a few streets short of Vikki’s home. She turned to him, ready to tease him, ready to defuse any threat of intimacy with humour. His face, though, was too serious.

“What is it, Dan? What’s the matter?”

“Can we talk, Vikki? I mean talk properly, not joking.”

“Go ahead.” She still sounded flippant.

She saw the fine lines deepen on his forehead. There was pain in his grey-blue eyes. She had always liked his eyes. As a teenager she used to imagine him as a Viking, facing the terrors of land and sea without fear.

“I’ve got to say this, Vikki, or I won’t be able to live with myself. I love you. Will you…will you marry me?”

Marry you, Dan?” There was a little quiver in her voice.

“Don’t bloody make fun of me, Vikki. You don’t owe me much, but you owe me the respect of taking me seriously.”

“I am taking you seriously, Dan. I’m just flabbergasted, I guess. I hadn’t expected this.”

They sat together in silence for a few minutes.

“You haven’t said no, at least.”

Vikki turned to him. She put one hand on his shoulder, and with the other, stroked his blond hair across his forehead.

“No, I haven’t. And I haven’t said yes either. Oh, Dan, this is just so difficult. Because I’ve loved you as a friend for years, and I find you sexy as hell, but…well, there’s somebody in England who’s special to me.”

“Not that Guy fellow, I hope?”

“As if!” Vikki stopped stroking Dan’s hair. She took hold of his right hand with both of hers, and squeezed it, as though to convince him of her earnestness. “He’s called Jon. I can’t explain it, Dan. It’s a mystery, but it’s very wonderful. I’m so sorry.”

Gently, Dan removed his hand from hers.

“I don’t want your pity, Vikki. If you won’t have me, I reckon I’ll have to go away.”

“I haven’t said no, Dan. But I’m not saying yes either, not yet.”

“So, what the hell are you saying then?”

“Don’t be angry, Dan. I know it must look like I want to have my cake and eat it, but it really isn’t that. Can you give me a minute just to think how to help you understand?”

Dan nodded.

Vikki gestured at the two of them sitting in the car.

“This is kind of reality, Dan. The two of us sitting here; you loving me; you asking me to marry you; and me sitting here wanting to say yes, because I love you too, Dan, I do truly. But then there’s this thing like magic that happened the day before I set off home; this – connection I suppose you’d call it – between me and Jon.

Look, he’s coming out here soon. Next letter I get, I’m expecting him to say when he’s coming. Suppose I said yes to you tonight? And then saw him, and this thing between us boils up and I change my mind about what I said? That wouldn’t be fair for either of us, would it?”

“I don’t think you’re being honest, Vikki, not with me, not with yourself.” There was an angry edge to Dan’s voice. “You want to keep me in reserve in case it falls through with this – Jon. Well, that’s not going to happen. What kind of basis would that be for a marriage?”

Vikki took both Dan’s hands in hers, and looked him full in the face. In the moonlight, her amber eyes were dark, almost black, and luminous with unshed tears.

“Dan. If you want me to – if you want me to – I’ll say yes to you now. I’ll say yes, and I’ll stick to it. I’m sure we could make it work, be happy together. I’ll write to Jon and tell him –  it was just – it was just a… beautiful dream. And not to come.” A single tear escaped, glinting, and leaving a silvery track as it trickled down her cheek.

Dan shook his head gently.

“No, not now, not tonight, Vikki. But I will ask again, and then I’ll insist on an answer.”

He turned away from her, and started the engine. Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the short journey home.


“Dear Jon,

I’m thrilled that you’re going to be here next week! I can’t wait! I’d thought it wasn’t going to be until September!

I know we’ve written before about this in our letters, but you’d be more than welcome to come and stay with us. My mum thinks you must be “A real, old-fashioned English gentleman” because you’re planning to stay in a hotel for at least the first few days!

Now, there’s something I must tell you.

When I was little, I was a bit of a tomboy, and my best friend was a boy called Dan. He’s still my best friend now, Jon, and he’s very dear to me. You’re the person I cleave to, but Dan is close too.

The problem is, he proposed marriage to me this evening. I didn’t say yes, but I couldn’t make myself say no.

I must be completely honest with you, Jonathan. It feels to me that the bond between you and me is so special that it demands honesty, perfect honesty, or at least as close to it as I can manage. So – if I hadn’t met you, Jon, I would have accepted Dan’s proposal, and been very happy.

There. I’ve said it. If that changes your mind about coming, then I accept that. Oh, but I so hope it doesn’t! I just want to be close to you!

With much love

Vikki xxx”

Jon read the letter, frowned, and read it again. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you for your honesty in telling me about Dan. I shall see you at Melbourne Airport at about 5 p.m. on July 10th. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it. I love you more than I can say.

With my whole heart.

Jon

xxx”

He took the letter to the post straightaway. It would, with luck, arrive before he did.


Jon was smiling as he tugged his suitcase into the Arrivals area. Where was she? He scanned the waiting faces, the family groups, husbands, wives; the people greeting men in suits who’d flown from England with only a briefcase and laptop; the taxi drivers displaying handwritten signs. There was no Vikki.

Jon frowned. Surely Vikki hadn’t stood him up? She must have been delayed. Perhaps her car had broken down?

He noticed a tall fair-haired man, who appeared to be waving to him. When Jon acknowledged the wave, the man beckoned to him. Stiff-legged, frozen-faced, Jon complied.

“Jonathan Hall?”

Jon nodded, curtly.

The tall man stuck out a hand.

“I’m Dan,” he said. “We have an emergency. Vikki’s disappeared.”

In the moment – the small stuff

I don’t know about you, but I am sometimes guilty of exaggerating the scale of an irritation. Something quite trivial can annoy me disproportionately.

For example, consider a married couple with different views about using the dishwasher…

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Jeremiah, a curmudgeonly so-and-so, would argue that it’s a labour-saving device. If it’s mostly full and you don’t run it, and you then have to hand-wash dishes for the next meal, then that’s a bit silly. And irritating. Grrrr!

Eve, a committed environmentalist, would argue that the dishwasher consumes electricity and water. If you run it and it’s not full then that’s wasteful. And irritating. Grrrr!

Obviously, there are merits to both points of view.

I suppose it would be possible to do a rigorous calculation of waste, and devise some way of assessing lost convenience. I wonder if that would make any difference to either of them, though…

The much more interesting matter is why we find a small thing like this so aggravating.

Perhaps it comes down to habits of thought, and the rules that we make for ourselves.

Jeremiah looks at why they bought the dishwasher, and his expectation is that this nice machine is going to save him time and effort. Not running it because it’s not full goes against his expectations; it breaks his rules.

Eve looks at the impact on the environment and on their budget, and her expectation is that they must use the voracious machine as efficiently as possible. Running it when it’s not full goes against her expectations; it breaks her rules.

Interestingly, the fact that it’s a small issue doesn’t matter; in fact, it may even make things worse. There are so many things in life that we can’t control, aren’t there? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that we can at least control the small things?

Of course, Jeremiah and Eve work out that they can solve their difficulty by being considerate of the other’s point of view. (Phew! Marriage saved!). Over the years, they resolve many similar differences. (Congratulations on a long and happy marriage!).

Mindfulness helps with issues like these. Living ‘in the moment’, you practise being aware of your emotions as they happen. You feel, and recognise, the prickle of anger as one of your rules is broken. Because you recognise it, you can deal with it. Jeremiah might find himself thinking “Aha! I’m feeling anger from Eve breaking one of my rules. Hey, you know what? Do I have any right to make rules for her? She’s entitled to her opinion, isn’t she?”

And, even better – it’s not a million miles from there to the position where Jeremiah welcomes Eve’s idiosyncrasies, as being a valuable part of the woman he loves.

‘Amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all) – when you let it!

Matters of life and death

There are always secrets in any marriage; little ones, usually, trivial things, whose revelation may be embarrassing or awkward, even upsetting, but no worse. Helen and Geoff’s marriage, though, held a huge secret, a matter of life and death. When chance brought it to light, it threatened everything. Can love conquer all? Or are some concealments unforgiveable?

Matters of life and death

“Come on, Miles, you’re twelve now. You can give me a hand with the tents.” Geoff was already manhandling the first bag out of the boot of the silver BMW.

“I’ll bring the other one, Dad.”

Geoff concealed a grin as he watched Miles wrestle with the heavy pack, but didn’t offer to help him.

“Good man!”

“Give us a shout when you’re finished, and we’ll come and do the beds and start cooking dinner.” Helen wandered down the field towards the sea, with Sophie skipping beside her. As they neared the path to the beach, Helen stopped. Later in the evening she hoped to photograph the sunset above the path, and she needed to calculate the best place to set up her tripod. It was a shot she’d long wanted to make but weather or season had never been perfect before. Perhaps this time would be better.

“Can we go down the sea, Mummy?”

“Not just yet, love. Later.”

She turned. Geoff was waving, and the tent and its awning were standing proud and colourful by the hedge.

“I think we could let the children go to the beach on their own this year,” suggested Geoff.

“Sophie’s only ten, dear.”

“Miles?”

“Yes, Dad?”

“Can I trust you to look after your sister on the beach? You’d both have to promise not to let the water go above your knees – that’s the crest of the waves, Miles, not the trough. Would you do that?”

“Yes, of course, Dad.”

“Off you go, then.”

The children ran off, helter-skelter towards the path.

Helen sat down at the table under the awning, busy with diced beef and vegetables. Every minute or so she looked at the path where her children had vanished. She wouldn’t feel completely comfortable until they were both back with her. Her gaze shifted to Geoff, perfecting his golf swing with a nine iron and a seemingly endless supply of plastic practice balls. She smiled and waved to him. He grinned and waved back. Geoff at forty was still fit, with endless stamina. She loved the feel of his hard body against hers. Perhaps the children would go to sleep quickly tonight. Helen was glad they’d bought a large tent, with separate sleeping rooms.

It was a pleasant, relaxing weekend.

*       *       *       *

As always on Monday, Geoff had an early start, driving from Gloucestershire to Leeds for a ten o’clock meeting. Helen felt full of energy. Bedroom curtains came down from the windows and were thrust into the washing machine. All the floors were vacuumed, and all the furniture dusted. Helen slipped a CD of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony into the music centre in the kitchen as she sat down to a salad lunch. ‘What shall I tackle next?’ she wondered.

Geoff wasn’t keen on her going into the study. Without ever saying so he’d conveyed an impression that he wanted it to be his private space, in the same way that the music room was, by default, Helen’s space. She’d hoovered the study and dusted it, but that was all. It could do with a thorough spring-clean, she decided.

It was while she was delving down the sides of the two-seater settee – they were full of biscuit crumbs – that she found the photograph. Intending to return it to the correct album, she glanced at it. It was old and dog-eared, a snapshot. Half a dozen young men in camouflage, holding what she took to be automatic weapons, were grinning broadly at the photographer. In the background were damaged buildings; it was plainly a village. ‘Africa?’ wondered Helen.

She looked more closely. The man on the left of the picture seemed familiar. Her stomach lurched. He looked very like Geoff. She took the photo to the kitchen, and tucked it into her handbag before she finished cleaning the room. She wanted to consider before she asked him about it.

There were still forty minutes before Sophie was due home. Helen went to the piano, but the image of Geoff in combat gear obscured the music. Well, if music couldn’t console her, perhaps she could banish her worry by making the room smarter. She fetched beeswax and cleaning cloths, and polished the piano until she could see her reflection in the lid.

Geoff was cheerful when he returned. Sales for the quarter were ahead of target, and there were two major contracts that he thought they could win. He’d brought Helen some flowers; he kissed her, and asked her to open a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner. Then he took the glass of sherry she handed him, and went, whistling, upstairs to the study, until Helen called him down for dinner.

“May I have some wine now I’m twelve, Dad?”

“I don’t really think he should, Geoff.”

“Quarter of a glassful won’t hurt him, Helen. In most African tribes he’d be considered a man now.”

“We’re in Europe, Geoff. Miles, there’s Schloer. I bought it specially for you.”

Miles looked first at his Dad, then at his Mum.

“Cool,” he said. “I like Schloer.”

The children were in bed and settled by nine-thirty. Helen brought in coffee.

“So what do you know about African tribes, Geoff?” Helen tried to keep her voice neutral.

“What about African tribes?”

“You told Miles that most African tribes would treat him as a man now he’s twelve.”

“Oh, that. Reader’s Digest last month.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with personal experience, then? From that time in your life that you’ve never told me about? When you were ‘knocking about the world’?”

“What’s this about, Helen? You know – you’ve always known – that there’s a part of my life that I don’t like to talk about.”

“Is that because you’re ashamed of it?”

“No, not really. If you must know, it might make it more difficult for me to do my job if it were generally known, so I don’t talk about it at all.”

“I think you’d better start talking, Geoff, at least to me.” Helen laid the photo on the coffee table as though presenting evidence.

Geoff stared at the picture.

“Have you been going through my stuff?” The skin over Geoff’s knuckles tightened as he clenched his fists.

“No, of course not. I found it down the side of the settee in the study.”

“And what were you doing poking around there?”

“Cleaning. That room needed a proper cleaning. I found the photo while I was doing that.”

“Well, now you can forget it again. It’s nothing to do with you.”

“I beg to differ. What were you doing in that picture?”

“Helping the legitimate government of Sierra Leone re-establish the rule of law in their country. I’m rather proud of that, actually. Sierra Leone could have been a failed state, and it isn’t. I played a small part in that, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“You were a soldier? Why haven’t you told my dad? He’d love to yarn with you.”

“When I was in Sierra Leone, I wasn’t part of the British Army.”

“You were a mercenary?”

“You say that like it’s a dirty word, but I was fighting on the right side.”

“Did you…did you ever kill anybody?”

“That’s what soldiers do, Helen. Yes, of course I killed people.”

“God! I’m married to a killer. The father of my children is a killer!”

“If I hadn’t killed, I would have been killed.”

“You didn’t bloody need to be there in the first place! Nobody made you go!”

Geoff stood up and moved to the drinks cabinet. He poured himself half a tumbler of scotch.

“Do you want one?”

“No, thank you.”

Geoff sat down beside her. Helen hitched herself away. She couldn’t control the aversion she felt.

“Let me tell you a few things, Helen. The most important is that I love you. You are the most important person in my world, you and the children, that is. I left soldiering behind many years ago. It was something I did as a young man; it’s not something I would ever do now.”

He paused, picked up his glass, put it down without drinking, seemed about to say something, picked up his glass again and swallowed half the contents.

“The main reason that I don’t talk about it is that I was involved in an…an incident that escalated and became – illegal. If the police were to find out, I could face trial. I am putting all my trust in you, Helen.”

“What happened?” she whispered.

“We entered a village. There were three of us Europeans who had some idea of what we were doing, and a couple of dozen locals. We lost control of them. It wasn’t entirely our fault; the local fighters were involved in a feud with the village, and we hadn’t been told. Anyway, they went berserk. They killed indiscriminately. In the end, to bring them under control, I shot one of our local fighters in the head. It stopped the others, but by then it was too late. We were surrounded by dead and mutilated civilians. We got the hell out and got the lads back to barracks, but the damage was done. Newspapers picked up on it, and reported it as an atrocity.”

“How do you live with yourself, Geoff? How on earth do you live with yourself?”

“Arguably I saved lives. I shot one man to end a massacre.”

Helen stood up

“I’ll keep my mouth shut, Geoff. But this changes everything between us. I mean, keeping this secret for fourteen years, never saying a word. Why, when we met, this had only just happened!”

“Two years earlier.”

“I’m sorry. I’d never have married you if I’d known; I wouldn’t even have gone out with you.”

“And look what you would have missed. We have a good marriage, Helen. Let’s not wreck it. We can work through this.”

“I shall sleep in the spare room tonight. No! – don’t touch me!”

*        *        *        *

Geoff rose early and returned from work late every day that week.

“Where’s Dad?” asked little Sophie.

“Busy at work, silly,” said Miles. “That’s because he’s a man. He has to earn money to take care of us all.”

“Women earn money too, Miles.” Helen didn’t mean to sound snappy. When her back was turned, Miles shrugged and pulled a face at Sophie. She giggled.

That Friday, Geoff came home early and helped Miles with his homework. Helen had cooked cottage pie and, as usual on a Friday, the whole family ate together.

Helen spoke only to Miles and Sophie. When Geoff asked her a question, she gave a non-committal grunt; he didn’t try again.

“Is something the matter, Dad?”

“Your mum and I have had a hard week, that’s all. Sometimes being grown-up is hard work.”

“Ha-ha,” muttered Helen furiously, but under her breath.

“I’ll settle Miles, if you like?”

“No!” Helen was vehement. “I’ll do it.”

The air was muggy. It felt as though a storm was brewing. Sophie’s bedroom, at the top of the house felt stuffy.

“We’ll leave your window open tonight, love, otherwise you’ll cook.”

Sophie snuggled down under her duvet.

“There’s a draft,” she complained.

“Never mind, love. You’ll soon be asleep, then you won’t notice.”

“Night-night, Mummy. Love you!”

Helen left the door ajar and the light on above the little attic staircase, so that Sophie felt reassured and safe.

The air grew heavier and heavier. By the time Helen went to the spare room to sleep, she was sure there was going to be a storm. Even though the curtains were open, no light came in from outside. The darkness there was absolute.

Before climbing into bed, she went to the window. Lightning flickered on the horizon. There was no sound; it was too far away. She counted “37…38…39” There was a faint rumbling.

She was fast asleep when the storm broke in earnest. A bolt of lightning lit up the room; Helen stirred. The crash of thunder that followed a few seconds later woke her up completely. There was another dazzling flash, and another crack of thunder.

Helen stumbled out of bed. Sophie hated thunderstorms. Even though she was a deep sleeper, violence on this scale would probably wake her. Helen shrugged on her dressing gown, slid her feet into her slippers and went out onto the landing.

The world lit up. She felt a shock as though somebody had struck every part of her body a stinging blow, and she fell into darkness and the stink of smoke. The burglar alarm was shrieking. Helen fought to move, fought to breathe. Her body felt paralysed. The darkness was less. There was light flickering on the staircase up to Sophie’s room. It was orange and yellow, and showed up the clouds of dark smoke roiling up the stairs.

Helen tried to shout, but, as though in a nightmare, she was mute. Her voice wouldn’t obey her. The tingling was passing off, leaving an ache and a sensation of burning. She levered herself up on an elbow. The staircase was alight!

She forced herself to her feet, swaying, gasping, coughing and staggered forwards towards the stairs and the fire. The flames reached for her. She tried to run past them, but she was too slow. Her dressing gown was alight as she reached the door.

But her strength and her wits were returning. She threw off the robe and slammed the door on the fire. The room was hot and smoky. She threw open the window as wide as it would go, breathed deeply, then turned to Sophie.

“Mummy, I’m frightened. What’s happening?”

“You’re all right now, darling. Mummy’s here.”

The room was hot, but not unbearably so, and the smoke was already dissipating in the draft from the window. Helen blessed Geoff’s forethought for insisting that the door to Sophie’s room should be a proper fire door.

“We’ve got to go out of the window, Sophie. That’ll be an adventure, won’t it?”

Rain was hammering down outside.

“I don’t think I like adventures, Mummy.”

“Come here, Sophie. Climb up here. You must sit on this bit, and then we fasten the belt, and you’re good to go.” Helen smiled and patted Sophie. “When you reach the ground, undo the buckle, and shout so that Mummy knows you’re ready. Then move well away from the house – ten steps away – and Mummy will come down the same way.”

Helen took hold of Sophie, and, with a silent prayer, launched her out of the window.

“Mummy!” the little girl screamed.

The mechanism of the fire escape rattled as the line paid out. There was a bump from below, and a wail. ‘Thank goodness,’ thought Helen, ‘that means she’s alive!’

She waited. The room was becoming stifling. The soles of her feet were burning on the floor.

“Undo the buckle, Sophie. Take off the harness. Mummy needs it.”

“It’s stuck, Mummy.”

She was going to die here. At least Sophie was safe. She wished, though, that she’d had the chance to be reconciled with Geoff.

“Helen? Helen!”

Thank goodness! It was Geoff!

“Sophie, here, let me undo that buckle. Helen? Are you okay up there? Sophie’s clear. Wind up the harness!”

Helen pulled frantically on the cord. The ratchet mechanism seemed to take an age to retract the saving line. At last it was ready. She climbed into the harness. Her feet were hurting abominably. She fastened the buckle, and pushed herself out of the window. The ratchet whirred, faster this time under her greater weight. She thumped into the ground, and felt an acute stab of agony in her right ankle.

Geoff grabbed her, lifted her.

“Miles is in the car. I’ve sent Sophie to join him. God, I thought I’d lost you.”

Tears were rolling down his cheeks, she realised. She patted his back as he carried her towards the car.

“It’s all right, Geoff. It’s all right. I’m okay. Just a busted ankle and a few scorch marks.”

“We’ll call an ambulance, just to be on the safe side,” he said.

“Geoff, I’m sorry about this last week. When I was trapped in Sophie’s room but knew she was safe, the only thing that really mattered to me was the thought that I loved you and I had been horrible to you. I’m really sorry.”

“It was my fault, Helen. I should have found some way of telling you before we married. I was dishonest. Can you forgive me?”

There, in the light of their blazing home, they kissed and gave thanks. They had saved everything that really mattered.

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!