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!