There’d been a change when they were fifteen, nearly sixteen, and just getting serious about maybe sitting A levels and leaving Middleton. They’d been friends since the pantomime where Polly’s Pierrot had, on the second night, held them all together in a realm beyond words. Nina had been Polly’s best friend for as long as Fiona could remember, but anyone could see that she wasn’t good for Polly. Rather than pushing her forward, Nina would try to trample over her.
Fortunately, the play and their shared experience of being late bloomers had allowed Fiona to come in and be who Polly needed. She’d never understood why, but the truth was, she needed Polly, too.
But the change, what had it been and when exactly? She wracked her brain trying to remember. In middle school, Polly was either writing or drawing constantly. She never shared the stories or poetry that Fiona knew of, not unless it was a project for class, but it was possible to catch glimpses of her drawings, and Fiona marvelled at how four or five lines could perfectly embody a tree in the woods or a river by a bank. When she worked with light and shade, or even just colored pencils, there was a magic to Polly’s drawings. Others envied it, making fun of her for being so engrossed in childish things. To Fiona, though, it was an astonishment. She could make numbers sing and form patterns that brought forth light from darkness, but Polly could with a few cross hatch’s call it forth with no effort at all.
With her silver gilt hair and far-away blue eyes, Polly should have looked washed out and sickly. Instead she was the white hot of a flame, always lively even in repose.
The more she thought about it, the more Fiona was certain it was Sebastian who’d somehow taken the spark from her. There’d been a day, soon after he’d taken Polly to meet his mother, Laurel. Fiona had only seen her at a distance, but thought the name was appropriate. Laurel wood looked more grey than green, and the leaves would cut you.
She’d seen them at a distance, Sebastian and Polly, Seb looking ravenous and Polly seeming distracted, that spark of Pierrot gone. As she’d approached, her eyes met Seb’s and he’d quirked a cold smile. In that moment she’d known him for what he was: an enemy, not just of hers, but of Polly’s.
It was the essay on an early Wordsworth poem which cemented the impression that something had gone out in Polly. As they always did after the homework was returned, they exchanged and critiqued it. Fiona showed Polly where she’d missed something in the maths sets or within their science experiments, and Polly would highlight where Fiona had glossed over a nuance, or, rare praise, picked up on a moment which should have been pursued to make the essay not just an analysis, but it’s own pulsing idea.
This essay of Polly’s had gotten a higher grade than she’d ever before achieved -- Polly’s essays might be inspired, but Miss Long was not a fan of inspiration -- it was a perfect detached analysis, even more detached than was Fiona’s habit. It was crystal clear like a window, instead of sparkling with originality like a cut gem. Fiona wasn’t certain she could ever forgive Seb and his mother for taking that away.
It was nearly a year later that Fiona realized that Polly had stopped drawing, too.
Very few of the girls in their year went on to university and Fiona and Polly were the only two to get scholarships. Fiona was going to be one of the first women at St. John’s College, Oxford and Polly was going to specialize in the early Romantic poets at Lady Margaret Hall. Fiona’s rooms were in one of the modern buildings on the North Quadrangle, and Polly’s were in the oldest of Lady Margaret’s residences, the appropriately named Wordsworth Hall.
They’d travelled together to buy their scholar’s gowns and walk through the town, getting to know the route between their schools. On foot or by bicycle, the mile was easy to accomplish, and they both thought Polly would do more walking to Fiona in the winter term because her college was closer to both the Bodleian and the Ashmolean.
The actual move had been a little fraught. They loaded up the Perks’ estate car with the essentials their colleges had demanded they bring. The rooms would, of course, be furnished. Then Polly, her Grandmother, and Fiona boarded the train for Oxford. Gran would supervise their buying a few things second hand -- typewriters, bicycles, and the like -- and then they’d all meet Fiona’s parents at St. John’s for the first unloading.
Sebastian met them at the station. He offered to buy Polly new everything, but Polly just shook her head and, with a sigh, Sebastian took them to the best places for good quality second hand goods. They were even able to buy a few of their set books before racing to the North Quadrangle and finding Fiona’s room.
Credit where it was due, Sebastian helped them unload the car at both rooms, carrying some of the heavier bits on his own. She couldn’t begrudge him that. She did see him leave something small on top of the university provided bookcase in Polly’s room. There were a tiny picture of Hunsdon House with the windows looking peculiarly like eyes and a bay leaf.
Fiona put a book on top of it, and, last thing before she left, swept the picture and leaf into a trash bag, volunteering to leave it in the skip on her way out. Gran would ride back with the Perks, but it had been agreed long before that each family would have its own “last evening” with their newly hatched Oxford scholars.
There’d been only one promise extracted from Polly before they’d started their Oxford lives: Polly would never break a date with Fiona just because Sebastian had asked her out. “We’ve seen it too often. Well, Nina’s a good example. Once someone has a boyfriend the other friends go out the window, and then, if they break up -- and I’m not suggesting you and Seb will -- the girl has no friends to help her out. So, I won’t take it badly if you already have a date with him when I suggest something, but if you’ve made plans with me first…”
“Don’t worry, Fiona, I’ll do as you ask. Promise, cross my heart.” Polly’d actually drawn the cross over her heart, and not once had Fiona thought her promise hadn’t been honored.
A few weeks into their term, Fiona and Polly decided to branch out. They were each going to ask two other girls with whom they were becoming friendly and see if their Oxford friendships were compatible with their middle school one. The six of them met up at Spud-U-Like on Halloween. The plan was to eat first, go to an entertainment at Hertford College and, if they were all getting on, head to the King’s Arms to talk and have fish and chips.
The entertainment proved to be three actors each telling a short story in character. The first, Dies Irae was told by a student portraying the boy whose train of thought the story was, In the House of Suddhoo was told by an Indian student dressed in a tropical suit and somehow managing to love and reprimand the India of Kipling in his telling of the tale, the last was told by the “author” M.R. James in a dressing gown and the ghost story The Mezzotint managed to make the hair stand up on the backs of their necks in spite of being recited by a young man sipping tea with flour in his hair.
Four of them, including Fiona and Polly, had loved the show. The other two were indifferent and wandered off as Fiona, Polly, and their new friends Holly and Ashley went to find half-pints and stodgy chips. They were all talking a mile a minute, pointing out small moments in the recitations which made them happy, when Seb came up to the table looking for Polly.
“Fiona, I thought she was supposed to be going out with you?”
All three girls glanced at Polly before looking at Sebastian blankly. Polly said, “I’m right here,” but Sebastian took no notice of her, and Fiona finally said, “She was at the entertainment with us. I’m sure she’ll call you later.”
“No, that’s just it. I wanted to let her know that I’m off to see my parents tonight. Got permission, and won’t be back until Tuesday. I cadged a ride and we're leaving now. Have to get there before midnight, you see.”
“I’ll make sure she knows,” Fiona said.
Polly added, “I already do,” but Sebastian appeared not to hear her.
“Thanks, Fi,” he said, and wandered out of the pub.
“He knows you hate to be called ‘Fi,’” Polly said.
Fiona shrugged. “I still call him ‘Seb.’”
“What was that all about?” Ashley asked.
“No idea,” Polly said. As she lifted her half pint of Hunt’s, Fiona noticed Polly’s cardigan was on inside out.
The rhythm of their first year at Oxford metronomed smoothly across the terms. No essays or sets were turned in late. They studied hard and revised for their Prelims seeing each other at least once a week for a cup of tea, if they couldn’t find a way to meet up otherwise. They attended plays and concerts, often with Holly and Ashley joining them, and generally took advantage of everything the University had to offer. May Morning found them reveling before breakfast, but they were sensible girls and still attended their Friday lectures.
Fiona was often teased about her resolution not to date while at University, but all of them seemed to find the camaraderie a quiet balm from the otherwise hectic life of the mind they led. Polly was the only one with a steady boyfriend, and Sebastian had learned how to join them for part of an evening -- if he’d been invited, God help him if he hadn't -- without altering the group’s dynamic. All-in-all, the first year went well.
But sometimes Fiona still missed the old Polly.
Polly wasn’t going to be able to live at College the second year. Space was limited at Lady Margaret Hall, so Freshers got rooms first. She began by trying to find single accommodation through the University Land Agents. Fiona came with her one day, and the woman who’d been helping Polly, Mrs. Beagle by her nametag, had beamed. “That’s wonderful. It’s much easier to find a flat for two or three this year. Last year it was all about single rooms, but most houses are filled and…”
Polly looked a little stricken. “Oh, no, Fiona just came for moral support.”
Fiona didn’t hesitate. “Would she be able to find something cheaper -- individually cheaper -- if there were two of us?”
“I’m afraid she would,” Mrs. Beagle said.
“I’ll have to ask my college, but honestly, it would be nice to walk through a corridor that doesn’t smell like boys.”
“It’s always difficult to get them to wash their things often enough at that age,” Mrs. Beagle said. “I had two, and I don’t know how we survived that age sometimes.”
Polly glanced between them. “Are you sure?”
Fiona nodded. “Let’s look. If St. John’s says ‘no,’ you’re only a day behind.”
They found a flat near the city centre that day and managed to put a half deposit down by practically cleaning out both their bank accounts. Mrs. Beagle assured them that as long as they let her know within a fortnight, their money would be returned to them if St. John’s didn’t let Fiona live out.
The flat itself was nearly perfect. There were only two rooms, plus a kitchen and a bath, but the rooms themselves were large and airy. The house was on a corner and rather than being rented out whole as so many houses in Oxford were, had been divided into flats. Theirs was on the top floor. Postgraduates with families made up most of the rest of the house, though there was one professor who had the small ground floor flat to himself.
Sebastian gave them the desk and bookcases from his living out situation. He’d taken a second class degree and was beginning to work in a barrister’s chambers while completing his qualifying sessions to be called to the bar. Laurel and his father were letting him stay in a converted carriage house at their London address, and it was already fully furnished.
They bought more bookcases and another small desk second hand and decided to set up the main room like a dining room as they were more likely to invite their friends over for food than anything else. They’d already decided that a television would be too distracting, but there was a stereo which could play Polly’s collection of cassette tapes as well as Fiona's records. They elected to share the big room at the back, which was intended as a bedroom anyway. With Sebastian away in London, separate rooms didn’t seem quite as needful.
The main delight of their situation was the garden in the back. It was walled and the very end of it seemed wild, though there was a clear path to a little bench with a statue, probably of Puck, nearby. Half of the rest was a lawn with some wrought iron furniture and the other half was raised beds for a vegetable garden. An hour’s work a week for each of them would allow them both to share in the fresh vegetables and to veto any vegetables they positively hated. They could even make requests for any herb or vegetable, other than potatoes.
It was ideal, and they moved in just at the end of their first year, taking turns going back to Middleton for parts of the long vac.
Fiona and Polly settled into a routine fairly quickly their second year. They each got permission to go down to London twice a term. Sebastian tolerated Fiona in the guest room in exchange for getting a chance to see Polly. He took them to clubs, most of them were fairly cheap, where the music was constant and the people were all beautiful. To Fiona’s eyes, Polly looked perfect for this world. They experimented with make-up and found clothes at flea markets which they altered to fit the look they wanted. With her silver-gilt hair in elaborate chignons, Polly came across as sophisticated and worldly wise while she was on Sebastian’s arm.
They each took a weekend at home, too. For Fiona, it was a breast cancer scare of her mother’s which proved to be a false alarm that called her home the first time. For Polly, it was her Gran telling her that her father was visiting. She hadn’t seen him in years and it might be years more if she didn’t go back that weekend.
Sebastian visited them, too, when he could get away from his work. He was polite and stayed at a hotel; Fiona wouldn’t let him in the apartment. Once or twice Polly came in quietly just before dawn, but, surprisingly, it wasn’t every time Sebastian visited. Sometimes, it was like Polly didn’t want to see him at all, especially if he’d been proposing a lot.
But most of that second year was taken up with food. If they were in Oxford, then Sunday lunch was a roast something and fresh vegetables and invited friends. Eight people was just bordering on too many, but most weekends there were eight of them. Guests might bring starters or desserts, and they’d have a good meal with wine and talk. Fridays were often take away paid for by a couple who lived downstairs. Fiona and Polly would look after their kids and the kids of their friends, while they had a dinner party with the other couple. Free food was the only fee they charged. Everyone in the house was student broke, so they all looked out for one another.
Saturday afternoons and evenings were for experiencing all Oxford could offer them, whether it was an art exhibit, a special lecture at the botanical gardens, a lecture or debate at the Oxford Union, or a quirky performance at one of the colleges, they participated in the life on offer, usually together, often with Holly or Ashley or both joining them.
There were two incidents from that year, one at the end of Michaelmas term and one in the middle of Hilary which gave her pause.
The first was at one of the Sunday lunches. The roast chickens had come out really well, as had the roasted potatoes and brussels sprouts. Ashley brought two bottles of white wine, and Holly had baked a proper Devon apple cake for dessert.
Somewhere in the midst of all the talk, Holly said, “Who’s the classical music aficionado?”
Polly smiled. “I don’t recognize this. Must be Fiona’s.” She’d turned to Fiona and added, “It’s lovely, Fiona.”
“But they’re your cassettes we’re listening to,” Fiona said. “Don’t you remember? Like from that panto we did.”
“I must have picked them up somewhere. Lucky us.”
The conversation went back to being general about the latest doings of professors and the difficulty of essays and movies and concerts. But that exchange disturbed Fiona greatly, and it was several days before the sense of unreality it created went away.
The second was even stranger and just as banal. Ashley mentioned that one of the colleges was going to show a double feature of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Fiona said, “I’m sure Polly will want to go. She went mad for Dumas for awhile.”
Polly looked askance and said, “Well, I know the general story, but it will be fun to finally learn the whole plot.”
Later that evening Fiona asked, “Do you really not remember your Dumas kick in middle school? I thought you said you’d fallen in love with Athos.”
“Do you remember every book you read in middle school?” Polly said, and smiled as she turned back to her essay.
Right then was when Fiona started calling Sebastian “Marmaduke.”
At the beginning of their third year, their second in their now well-loved flat, Polly caught strep throat and asked permission from the college to recover at home. When she came back, Fiona found her distracted and distant. She’d heard that third year, the pressure of doing well on the finals, created changes in people, but she hadn’t expected anything so extreme or sudden, certainly not from Polly.
On the other hand, that spark Fiona thought had gone missing had returned behind the puzzlement. She caught Polly doodling while she thought, the lines as fresh as ever. Polly was trying to understand her poets by trying her hand at writing poetry. At least some of it was interesting and might become good with some work. Or so a mathematician thought.
Dinners were burnt and essays delayed, something Polly had never done before. Finally, Fiona resorted to telling her sternly that she’d missed a tutorial. It got Polly’s attention and she said, *“Thomas Lynn seems to have vanished out of everyone’s mind. Sometimes I’m not even sure he existed myself. And don’t say ‘who is Thomas Lynn’ or I shall scream.”
“I wasn’t going to ask that. You used to talk about him. Didn’t he come to that panto when we were Pierrot and Pierrette?”*
The look of wonder on Polly’s face was awe inspiring. Fiona gestured to one of their dining chairs and began to listen -- and talk -- about Thomas Lynn.