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How pleased along thy willowed edge

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"After all," said Julian, "even Shakespeare had to stop in Oxford overnight."

Hilary agreed vaguely, distracted by a sudden, brief view of the city's golden spires as their car began to make its way down Headington Hill. It was June, and an efflorescence of greenery soon blocked the view as they descended into the steep, stone-walled cutting that marked the road's entrance into Oxford. Dappled light played across Hilary's face.

"We should have got married here," Julian continued. "Like Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane."

For the newspaper reader of a certain class, it had been the society wedding of 1935. Even Hilary, in the housemen's common room, had sat transfixed over the newspapers, guiltily turning the page when David came in lest he think that she too was common enough to be fascinated by the romance between the younger son of a duke and the mystery writer whom he had saved from the gallows. She would have died rather than admit it; in response to the teasing inquiries of a fellow house surgeon she had said, truthfully enough, that she was no admirer of monocles.

"There wasn't any need," said Hilary. "One can be just as thoroughly married in a London registry office, after all."

In answer Julian squeezed her hand for a moment, before a stopping double-decker bus ahead made downshifting an urgent necessity.

"I feel very thoroughly married," he said, taking his hand away and shifting gears with aplomb. "Don't you?"

A bicyclist flying down the hill in full sub fusc glanced towards their car and, overhearing, smiled at them as she passed.

"Very thoroughly," said Hilary.

They had been married a week earlier in the register office in Westminster, with only Rupert and Lisa Clare, Sam and James, and Julian's friend Chris Tranter as guests. They had spent the intervening days in London, museum-going by day and playgoing by night, a thoroughly satisfying round that had left Hilary only slightly worn out - especially as this had been combined with other, more traditionally nocturnal, activities. Yet when Julian had suggested a night in Oxford on their way back to Gloucestershire, she had agreed with eagerness. It had been over a year since she had been in the city at all, and an afternoon spent in theatre at the Radcliffe Infirmary hardly counted.

Like most who have been up at Oxford, whether for a term or for a lifetime, her attachment to the place was at times almost painfully strong. She almost blessed the traffic jam as they drove across Magdalen Bridge and onto the High, which allowed her a little longer to admire the poetry of the architecture, half-obscured though it might be by a parade of omnibuses and cars that seemed to have grown more numerous with each passing year.

Julian turned onto the thronged Cornmarket Street and thence onto Broad Street, where he parked the car with satisfaction right outside his old college.

"And I didn't hit a single student. Aren't you proud of me?"

"I never doubted you for a moment," said Hilary. "Shall we go in?"

When they entered the lodge was thick with a crowd of undergraduates loudly discussing cricket.

"Mr. Fleming," said the porter immediately, with a hearty and unfeigned geniality. "Good to see you again safe and sound. Head all right?"

Julian smiled bashfully. "No worse than usual."

"Come for a visit?"

"Just for the night," he said. "I've booked one of the guest rooms. We were in London for the week; now we're our way back to Gloucestershire. It's our honeymoon."

"Is it, now?"

For the first time he raised his eyes from the rumpled accommodation list to consider Hilary, who had been standing unobtrusively (or so she had considered) at the other side of the lodge, studying a green baize noticeboard covered with missives from the dean imploring the undergraduates to behave themselves during finals. Not much had changed, she thought with satisfaction, since her own undergraduate days.

Now she felt the porter's eyes on her. She was still dusty and windblown from driving from London in the open-topped MG, and thought that she probably looked every month and every day of her thirty-five years. If not a few more so.

"This is my wife, Dr Hilary Fleming." Julian now spoke formally, as though he were rehearsing the words. Then he unbent a little in order to add: "Hilary, this is Bill, my very favourite porter."

They said their how do you dos politely to one another through the intervening window. Hilary consoled herself with the thought that Oxford porters see so much of life that having a favoured undergraduate appear with an distinctly older wife was probably the least of surprises.

"Doctor of philosophy, was that then?" asked Bill with the air of a connoisseur.

"Of medicine," corrected Hilary. "I was at Somerville, and then at the Radcliffe."

He nodded approvingly. "You'll have heard Mr. Fleming had a nasty fall last year. Came off his horse, knocked his head, and all they found in his pockets was a scrap of paper with the college crest on. Heaven knows what they'd have done otherwise, laid up like he was in a hospital bed without a word to say for himself. Touch and go, it sounded to me, not that I'm a doctor. I was the one took the call."

"It was touch and go, as it happens." Hilary paused. "I was the one who placed it."

As she spoke she could not suppress a slight smile; when she met Bill's eyes she found that he, conspiratorially, returned it. They shared now that slight bond which can often seem more meaningful than the larger ones. In the matter of Julian, they were henceforth acknowledged allies.

Julian himself had lost interest during this last exchange and begun drifting about the lodge, his hands all but in his pockets.

"Is Cutler in?" he demanded.

"Can't say, sir. Ought to be, though, with lunch in ten minutes and exams in two weeks."

"Oh, lunch." Julian raised his chin as if scenting the air. "I should have remembered, of course it is. We'll take our bags up to the room afterwards."

"No need, I'll have the scout fetch them up for you. Still the red MG, is it?"

"Still the red MG," confirmed Julian absently. "Thanks."

"It's just outside," said Hilary to the porter. "To the left."

But Julian had already begun to head in the direction of lunch. With a nod Hilary took her leave of the porter and followed in his wake.

Their way lay through the gardens, whose growth was extravagant in the manner of early June. It was a hot day and the dew had faded from the roses. The college sundial picked out the hour, its shadow crisp and short.

"I hardly know anyone who's up now," said Julian as they made their way around the Garden Quad with the crunch of gravel. "Even last year it would have been different. Cutler's reading Classics, of course; he was in the Greek Play in his first year - my third - and set the university on fire with it. Of course all he likes to talk about are excavations. He's going out to Knossos once he takes his finals."

Hilary wondered whether they were to spend the whole of their time in Oxford discussing excavations but she said nothing, not wanting to spoil Julian's return to his old college. Of course it had been years since she had known any of the undergraduates at her own college. She had a friend who was now a lecturer in Politics at St. Hilda's but that would be a visit for another time, when she was alone.

When Julian had asked, somewhere near Lewknor, whether there was anyone else whom she wanted to see, she had only been able to think of Sanderson, but it had seemed an inappropriate choice for a whole host of reasons.

Approaching the wide steps of the hall they were caught up in a stream of be-gowned undergraduates, who were talking urgently of Eights Week and Finals in equal measure. To Hilary they all seemed absurdly young and she wondered whether they might be starting to seem so to Julian as well.

Julian spotted Cutler just across the threshold; he was a slight boy with glasses and light brown hair carrying a stack of books under one arm. The two offered their greetings with the reserved politeness of Oxford men but one could tell that they were fond of one another.

Julian made introductions and Hilary made polite conversation, all the while with the distinct suspicion that Cutler was studying her with something approaching awe. Already Julian seemed ever so slightly more grown up. She wondered whether it was merely a matter of comparison or whether his new status as a married man had given him an infusion of confidence.

Lunch in hall was nostalgically familiar, although Julian's college was far grander than Hilary's had been. Hilary sat and ate, glancing around at the walls full with the portraits of college men, while Julian and his friend caught up on college gossip. Halfway through the meal she began to feel claustrophobic. It was a close, humid day and the atmosphere in hall was composed of the stale, warm breath from the kitchen combined with unwashed wool gowns and too many young men straight off the playing field. There was the clatter of silver and the clamour of boisterous voices. She had grown unused to sharing a narrow bench at long college tables; though Julian was to her one side, she had on the other side a burly boy with the shoulders of a Rugby player.

It's my honeymoon, after all, she thought rather desperately.

Pushing her uneaten potatoes to one side of the plate, she raised her voice to interrupt the discussion of Oedipus Rex.

"Julian, darling," she said with assumed gaiety, "had we plans for the afternoon? As it's such a warm day I thought it might be nice to go out on the river."

"Marvellous idea," said Julian instantly. "Shall we rent a punt? Cutler, would you like to come along?"

Hilary's spirits sank for a moment but Cutler shook his head.

"Alas, couldn't possibly. My books beckon."

"I suppose you do have finals coming up," said Hilary in a sympathetic tone that Sam would have recognised as belonging to her auntly repertoire. "Very sensible of you, really."

"Since when has sensible mattered in June?" said Julian.

Hilary shot him a significant look. Thank heaven he was finally beginning to be able to read them.

"Yes, very sensible," he added. "There was a reason I got a third, after all."

"Acting," said Cutler.

***

As they emerged from the college and turned towards Magdalen Bridge, Hilary felt a cool breath of air rustling her dress around her knees. To the west the sky was dark with incipient rain, leaden grey against buildings still golden with the summer sun.

"Shall we still?" she said. "If all else fails there's always the Pitt-Rivers."

"It'll pass through," said Julian. He had that cheerful optimism of the young; it always made her heart open to him.

Halfway down the curve of High Street the heavens opened, great heavy cold drops that seemed to carry autumn and woodsmoke and early teas by the fireside within their watery compass. Hilary could not have said who started running first. They sprinted together down the pavement, feet splashing in the quickly-forming puddles, and finally found shelter under the awning of a grocer's shop. Hilary shivered, laughing, and lit a cigarette.

"Summer," she said, watching the gutters overflow and run with rain.

Gusts of wind shook the awning, driving a fine mist into the air. Julian, on the outside, stood closer to her; after a moment of indecision he took off and offered her his jacket.

"Quite all right, thanks," said Hilary. "Cigarette?"

"Yes please," replied Julian hopefully.

Cyclists made their way slowly through a landscape of tiny splashes. Finalists sheltered under their gowns. Girls shrieked delightedly. Buses thundered down the High, undaunted, their windows streaked and half opaque with condensation.

Julian held his guttering cigarette - the last she had - loosely at his side. He seemed to smoke more for comfort than for the nicotine; Hilary thought he had not inhaled more than twice, and, once having finished her own, she had the strong desire to take it off him and tell him to stop wasting her supplies. She could feel the chill of the damp slowly sinking into her, and wished she had taken his jacket after all. It was too late now - or she was too proud.

"I'll just pop in and get a few things," she said. "As long as we're here."

After replenishing her supply of cigarettes, she found herself buying without thinking the essentials of any punting expedition - strawberries, cream and champagne. Halfway through the process she thought that this was a foolishly optimistic gesture - they would likely eat her purchases in their college guest room, which she supposed would have its own sort of nostalgia - but when she turned back towards the plate glass window she saw an unexpected shaft of light playing across the rack of newspapers. She did not bother to glance at the headlines. The sun had come out.

Glistening droplets dripped from the awning as the last of the rain came down. Hilary rejoined Julian, who favoured her with a dazzling smile.

"You see?" he said, as though he expected even the weather to bend to his pleasure. She remembered that first dreary tea in Cheltenham, when he had been unable to stop apologising for the weather, and felt that this was a change worth taking.

They strolled out into a freshly washed Oxford, streets quieted by the sudden shower. At the end of the High, Magdalen's tower stood out benignly golden against the receding storm. A final spatter of rain and it was gone by.

At the base of the tower was the punt rental, where the rain had driven off the summertime queues. A punt was procured for them, only slightly damp, with fresh cushions and a picnic rug into the bargain, and Julian was issued with pole and paddle.

He handed Hilary into the boat and then, after she had settled herself at the bow, climbed gracefully in himself. With only the slightest hesitation he pushed off.

"Upriver or down?"

"Up is much nicer," said Hilary, thinking of the crowds that would undoubtedly descend now that the weather had cleared, and then wondered whether she had been too emphatic.

"Of course it is," replied Julian with that easy, agreeable way of his.

He reversed the punt without difficulty and pointed it up the Cherwell, towards the University Parks and Parson's Pleasure. Hilary had chosen a seat in the bow, facing backwards rather than forwards, so that she might unobtrusively admire Julian about his work. He punted with the same instinctive style that he brought to every movement, handling the pole as if he hardly felt its weight. A few minutes upstream he paused to take off his jacket and loosen his tie; he opened the second button on his shirt, affording Hilary an unimpeded view of the hollow of his neck and his sculpted collarbone.

Once out of view of Magdalen Bridge he only gained in confidence and speed. Hilary was cross to see that he could punt one-handed, and without visible effort; it would have been beyond her own strength.

"You know your way around the river," she said with distant approval.

Julian shrugged, then pushed off with added vigour. "We used to go out when we were rehearsing, for a change," he said. "We would tie up somewhere and do a read through. I remember how fitting it seemed for The Tempest, being out on the water."

"You would hardly have been in danger of shipwreck," said Hilary laughing.

"No, but one takes what one can get. And it seemed almost as fitting for Midsummer Night's Dream. I've always longed to do a production out of punts, wouldn't that be lovely? I've heard of it being done before, but only with the cast in punts; the spectators were on the bank. And really I wouldn't want to do it unless it could be done properly. Mind you, there would be difficulties..."

And he was away. Hilary lay back on her cushion and gazed upwards at the leaves at they passed by. This stretch of the Cherwell was a tunnel of greenery, luxuriant with the growth of early summer. Strange byways branched off from the main river, dead ends and narrow passages. In one such opening she saw a heron, magnificently solitary and self-possessed. Around it the leaves dripped with the last of the rain. One could imagine oneself exploring the upper tributaries of the Amazon, rather than the quiet upper reaches of the Thames.

All talk seemed superfluous here. After a time even Julian fell silent. They slid past the Magdalen Fellows' Garden, where the daffodils were just over. Past Mesopotamia. Soon Parson's Pleasure came within view.

Even from a distance down the river one could make out the accents of pale, bare flesh scattered amidst the indecent green of the grass. Hilary wondered whether the sunbathers had been so determined as to endure the brief rainstorm: she envisioned them, lying in serried rows, with the raindrops beating on their bare flesh. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the lash.

"I'll just put you ashore," said Julian gallantly, "while I take the punt over the rollers."

"Thank you."

There was nothing else one could say, for a woman could hardly invade the sacred precincts of Parson's Pleasure. Julian would have to manage the rollers by himself - although here one envisioned eager young men of a certain persuasion leaping to their feet to offer assistance with the heavy punt. Julian would not want for sympathy.

Hilary smiled to herself at the thought, which cushioned some of the pique that she felt at being so gently ushered aside. No matter that she was a doctor and had seen more naked men, at closer range, than Julian. It had always been thus. As an undergraduate, when out on the river with her fellow Somerville students, the weir had formed an absolute bar to their excursions - either upstream or downstream - for a punt of young women could hardly navigate the social minefield of the rollers without a male escort.

Until Julian put her ashore, Hilary pointedly, stonily refused to avert her gaze. She was a doctor, after all. It was nothing that she had not seen before.

Upstream, after she had made her way through the University Parks, Julian collected her once again.

"That was rather good exercise," he commented, still panting a little as he wielded the pole.

It was a hot day now that the rain had passed through. The stretch of river that they had now entered was less sheltered by trees; the sun beat down, and Hilary's fair skin had begun to burn in the heat of it. Julian's blue shirt was faintly damp with sweat after his exertions. It clung a little to his back as he moved. Hilary examined him from underneath the shade of her hand.

"Did any fetching young men offer to help you?" she asked.

"They were good chaps," said Julian, obviously without thinking.

Hilary raised an eyebrow at him and they both began to laugh.

They drifted upstream together. Once past the punt house on Bardwell Road - the beginning of many happy Somerville punting trips - and the back gardens of North Oxford, it seemed that they had entered into the deep countryside of Oxfordshire (though of course one knew that Summertown was near at hand). Grass grew long and uncut on the banks and cows regarded them curiously as they slipped through endless meadows.

"How far did you intend to go?" asked Hilary. She glanced at her watch; two hours had gone by unheeded, and punting was vigorous work even for a strong young man like Julian.

"I would take you to the ends of the earth," Julian declared, brandishing the pole with a flourish. River water trickled down his arm; he made a face.

"But darling, this afternoon..."

"To the Vicky Arms at least. We're not that far off now."

"We already have the champagne."

"Just above the Vicky Arms, then. It'll be quieter."

"Of course it will," said Hilary.

In those unpeopled stretches of the river, it was not difficult to find a low bank where one could scramble ashore, and a tree where the punt could be tied. Few punters carried on past the Victoria Arms to the low stone bridge that carried the Northern Bypass across the Cherwell. (It had not been there at all in Hilary's day.)

Julian hopped out lightly, took the provisions that Hilary handed him, and then offered her a gentlemanly hand in order to help her onto the bank. Hilary stepped ashore with what she considered to be decent grace, though she was grateful of the assistance; she did not have Julian's long legs, and wearing a dress added its own challenge.

It isn't a competition, she thought, wryly amused.

"What a perfect place for a picnic," said Julian, spreading his arms wide as if to encompass the whole of the scene.

On both sides of the river, grassy meadows stretched away to dark trees on the horizon. A wide sky arched overhead, the dark blue of summer feathered with creamy clouds. Near the opposite bank a coot dipped and paddled. The grass was still slightly damp from the earlier burst of rain but Julian spread out the heavy rug - borrowed at Magdalen Bridge along with the punt - and collapsed down onto it with the air of a man who has done his duty. He winced a little as he lay down; Hilary thought that even he must feel the strain of an afternoon of hard punting upstream.

"I should like to take my shirt off," said Julian. "But it wouldn't do, would it?"

Hilary laughed. "Well, I certainly shan't object."

He looked at her doubtfully. She wondered whether he were merely shy - though he had always seemed happy enough to walk about her bedroom in a state of total undress - or too well brought-up to display himself outside the bounds of Parson's Pleasure. Perhaps he was afraid not of criticism but admiration. In any case there was no one for miles save themselves and the lone coot in the river. After a look around Julian seemed to convince himself of the fact, for he sat up again, half unbuttoned the shirt and pulled it over his head. Hilary, in order to avoid appearing too absorbed in this spectacle, looked away and busied herself with her new packet of cigarettes. She lit one, then laid it aside on a corner of the rug.

Julian eased the cork absentmindedly out of their bottle of champagne. It gave with the smallest of pops; only a few bubbles fizzed and spattered onto the grass. He poured Hilary a glass and then one for himself.

"What shall we toast?" she asked. "To us?"

"To us," echoed Julian.

The afternoon was long and sleepy. They drank champagne and ate strawberries and smoked, basking in the warmth of the sun.

Julian wound up lying with his head in her lap, sweetly agreeable, allowing her to stroke his dark hair as she fed him strawberries dipped in cream. This was all that her undergraduate days had wanted, thought Hilary, though likely at twenty-one she would have had neither the confidence nor the ease to enjoy it properly.

Her lapse of attention had coincided with Julian coming to the end of a particularly large and juicy strawberry. He signalled his continued interest by kissing, then licking, then beginning to suckle at her empty fingers. Hilary felt the thrill of pleasure throughout her body; then she snatched her hand away.

"Julian, darling, you can't."

"Why not?" he retorted, catching her hand again easily. "We're married, aren't we?"

Now he pressed his lips against the inside of her wrist, gazing up at her from under those absurdly graceful lashes of his. Her wrist and fingers were now sticky with the juice of the strawberries. She could not recall ever having wanted him more.

"Oh, my sweet," she said. "My sweet."

Julian expressed his pleasure by rolling onto his side and rubbing his cheek against her thigh. The thin silk of her dress slid against her skin, the hem coming up past her knee.

She could feel her own self-control rapidly and fatally weakening. She looked around the placid Oxfordshire landscape, wondering with absurd recklessness whether there might be somewhere more sheltered from view, whether they were more likely to be seen from the river or from the land, whether a willow might offer a sufficient screen for the sake of propriety. This was patently ridiculous because the idea was improper from the first.

"Do you love me?" asked Julian, as if the question were necessary foreplay for the act.

It broke the spell. Hilary blinked and looked at her watch. Nearly five o'clock. The long summer evening was coming on.

"Of course I love you," she said. "But we ought to be getting back."

He sighed. "Oh God, don't say that. Don't let's go back at all. We could carry on and stay in Islip for the night. Chris Tranter and I once punted there together, back in my first year."

"To Islip?" echoed Hilary. "It must have taken you all day."

"All night, actually. We had to spirit away the boathouse key from the lodge and return it first thing in the morning before it could be missed."

"I never thought of you as the Scholar Gipsy type..." Hilary began.

She had meant to say more but she was distracted by the sudden drone of a biplane overhead, cutting through the stillness of the empty blue sky. Julian squinted up at it, shading his eyes with one hand.

"That's an Avro Tutor," he said knowledgeably. "I wonder if they've come from Abingdon, or maybe the flying school at Kidlington? There are RAF bases all over, I suppose, but it looks like the University Air Squadron to me. Those are the ones that I used to fly."

Hilary felt a surge of anger at the thought that the shadow of war could follow them even into the midst of a quiet afternoon. That Julian's youthful vitality should be fated to become nothing more than another instrument of war. She thought that he expected a response from her but nothing that came to her mind was fit to express. She had seen death at first hand; she did not want to bring it here.

"I've always wondered why Matthew Arnold never mentioned the Cherwell," she said hurriedly instead, recovering the previous thread of conversation. "Was it not poetic enough?"

"Perhaps he was just rather fond of Cumnor," said Julian thoughtfully.

"Perhaps he was."

The biplane droned away again, unregarded.

"It's an appealing thought, isn't it?" asked Julian. "Running away into the countryside with the gypsies. Especially nowadays - Oxford seems to get so close in the summer with all the buses and the exhaust."

"Worse than in my day."

Julian smiled sweetly up at her. "This is your day," he said. "You've just got married, after all."

She could not help but feel that he deserved a kiss for that. She leaned forward and kissed him once, twice, thrice on the lips, and then a fourth time on the forehead only because she was not able to tear herself away.

"My dear boy," she murmured, and felt she need say nothing else. Then she straightened up. "I'll just start putting things away, shall I? You can lie there a little longer if you like."

She eased herself out from underneath Julian, lowering his head down to the rug. He seemed to take her at her word, for he immediately reached out for the packet of cigarettes that she had left close at hand, and lit one. Hilary watched as he tried and failed to blow a smoke ring; torn between affection and mild annoyance, she reminded herself that she had after all told him that he needn't rouse himself so soon.

By the time that Julian had roused himself from his reverie on the bank, finished his cigarette and shaken out the rug, Hilary had already returned hamper and cushions to the punt and was standing impatiently in the bow holding the pole.

"Hop in," she said, smiling, "or you'll have to walk back."

"But what are you doing?" asked Julian. He had pulled on one sleeve of his shirt and left the other, still damp with river water, to dangle in confusion.

"My dearest, you didn't think that I was planning to let you punt all the way here and back by yourself?"

"Of course I did," he protested, putting his arm through the other sleeve.

"Julian, I've been punting since you were - well, younger than I care to mention." He had in fact been seven when she first came up to Oxford; the thought hardly helped. "We used to go out on the river all the time when I was at Somerville, without a young man in sight. Or even thought of."

"I'm sure you're excellent with a pole," said Julian meekly. "But you'll have to let me take the last stretch back to the boathouse; otherwise I shall look like a terrible cad."

"Perhaps if you behave yourself I will," said Hilary, gripping the pole in readiness.

Julian leapt effortlessly into the punt; a moment later, Hilary pushed off smartly. With the first thrust she remembered that there is an art to punting, and, furthermore, that she had not been at the helm within the past five years. She had sent the punt sliding along the bank rather than away from it. Without comment Julian fended off with a paddle before he could be driven inexorably into a low bush.

Hilary, her face burning, took more care over her second stroke. This one came right; the punt drifted gently towards the middle of the river, as though it had never meant to go anywhere else.

Having successfully completed his fending off, Julian lay back at full length in the punt. His shirt, rumpled and river-wet, was still open to the waist; he had about him an air of exhaustion combined with extreme contentment that seemed almost post-coital in nature. Hilary was at some pains to keep her eyes off him and on the river ahead.

She punted with the consciousness that he might be watching her as well - as she had done earlier, Julian had sat facing backwards, one imagined for greater ease of conversation, but it did make for a degree of self-consciousness. After twenty minutes of strict attention to her form - most of the time spent wishing that she had worn shoes that would have a better grip on the slippery slats of the decking - she looked back towards Julian and realised that he had fallen peacefully and undeniably asleep. His mouth had fallen slightly open.

Hilary smiled and carried on, enjoying the peace of an Oxford summer evening. Julian slept onwards even past the Cherwell Boathouse. It was not far above the rollers that he finally jerked awake, woken by a burst of laughter from an overloaded punt of students all in sub fusc and sunk deep into post-exam hilarity. He flung out one hand and unwittingly dipped it in river water up to the wrist. The surprise of this seemed to wake him thoroughly.

"Oh heavens," he said sheepishly, running his other hand through his disheveled hair. "I haven't been very good company have I?"

"You've been excellent company," said Hilary absentmindedly.

Julian's slight pout had only a touch of the theatrical. "You mustn't say things like that, you'll hurt my feelings."

More than a small part of her was grateful that the quiet of the evening had not been marred by (for example) a lengthy disquisition on the proper staging of The Duchess of Malfi, but, though her tone had been half joking, she felt that admitting to being bored by one's husband's conversation while on honeymoon might be rather bad form.

"I'm sorry, dear, you know I didn't mean it. Have you ever noticed that the longer the punting trip, the more relaxed and good-natured the whole thing becomes? I've enjoyed watching you sleep; really I have. Whereas I've been on thirty-minute pleasure excursions round the Magdalen College School playing fields so fraught from beginning to end that they ended up with half the provisions in the river and most of the punters swearing mortal enmity."

Julian laughed. "I've been on that sort of trip too. Tranter called me a bloody fool and then left me stranded in a bridge I'd been trying to climb over."

"Why were you trying to climb over a bridge?"

"Bridge-hopping. It's a sort of a sport; well, it was at Trinity. But mostly I think I was trying to get away from Tranter."

Hilary had continued to muse. "Perhaps punting is a good test of a marriage? In which case I think we've been rather a success."

"We didn't need a test," said Julian staunchly.

When they came to the rollers Hilary was forced to relinquish the punt to Julian but she reclaimed it again immediately downstream. Though her arms were beginning to ache from wielding the heavy wooden pole, she kept at it until they came to the heavily wooded stretch of the river near the Fellows' Garden.

"Will you let me take it for the last stretch?" asked Julian. "I'd really rather you did."

"If you must," said Hilary with a secret measure of gratitude.

She guided the punt to the edge of the river, where it could temporarily be wedged in place against the bank with the pole. Julian got to his feet, steadying himself lightly against the side with one hand as he moved. Exchanging places mid-river is always a ticklish and unavoidably close business in a punt; still more so when the punters concerned are newlyweds. Julian climbed carefully over the back of the seat, to the accompaniment of the usual dramatic rocking, to join Hilary at the stern. He caught at her for support - with clumsiness one suspected was half feigned - and stole a kiss.

"Darling!" said Hilary, laughing.

He kissed her again, more securely. They stood together now in the small space of the stern, Julian's arms around Hilary, both holding the pole. Hilary had been taught to punt - by a Somervillian third-year of whom she had been rather in awe - in a similar position but the atmosphere was a good bit more intimate now.

"Anyone may come past," protested Hilary, though a bend in the river and the overgrown greenery largely screened them from both upstream and downstream view.

A moment later she took Julian's face in both her hands and gave him a lingering kiss of her own. As she withdrew, he leaned forwards to nuzzle at her cheek. His breath smelt of champagne and his long lashes tickled.

"Hilary," he said, a breathy exclamation that seemed at first to require no answer. "Hilary, my God, I don't deserve you."

"Everything I can give you, dearest, and more besides."

He seemed to take this as invitation; as they kissed, the punt rocking delicately with every shift of weight, Julian's hand began to slide stealthily down from where it had been resting at the small of her back. He had become more daring since their marriage; whether this was due to experience or the validation of legal sanction, she was not certain.

Where will it all end, Hilary had just begun to think - dismay and excitement mixed together - when her ardour was temporarily dampened by a large drop of water landing squarely on her upturned face. She glanced upwards into the canopy of wet leaves, thinking that it was a stray, but noticed that the backdrop to the leaves had changed from blue to a dark grey. Julian kissed her again, insistently, as though reproaching her for her wandering attention. Another few drops fell.

"Oh damn," said Julian softly. "It's raining, isn't it?"

"It looks like it."

The patter of rain on the leaves was now distinctly audible over the faint roar of traffic from Magdalen Bridge.

"Damn, damn," said Julian. "Take a seat, will you? I've a feeling we're in for it."

Hilary, climbing over the cushion to take her place as an obedient passenger, found herself wondering whether Julian knew any stronger language than 'damn'. She suspected that this was unfair - he had been through boarding school and university, after all - but life in a hospital had accustomed her to the large and colourful vocabulary that the vicissitudes of medical practice seemed to demand. It had taken conscious effort for her to avoid speaking like the men; it would never have done.

"I'll go as quickly as I can," he added.

He was as good as his word, bending nearly double in his haste to extract the maximum effort from each pole's length. The punt sliced softly through the water; the rain began to come down in earnest. Hilary sat on a wet cushion in her thin silk dress, Julian's jacket wrapped around her shoulders, and shivered.

Magdalen Bridge was less than ten minutes away, but one can get very thoroughly soaked in ten minutes. They clambered out of the punt, nearly stepping on one another in their efforts to extract cushions, paddle, picnic rug and provisions as quickly as possible. Hilary glanced at Julian and began to laugh, for he was disheveled to the point of utter disreputability - dripping wet, with his shirt hopelessly wrinkled and buttoned awry.

"Hasn't been a bad afternoon on the whole," said the man in the punt hire shed as Julian handed him a damp pound note. His tone was only half ironic. "Apart from the rain."

"It's been a lovely afternoon," said Hilary, thankful that she could not see herself in a mirror.

Having settled up, and handed back the paddle and cushions, Julian turned to Hilary. "And what shall we do now?"

The rain was drumming so loudly on the roof of the shed that he had to raise his voice to be heard.

"A hot bath and a hot cup of tea." Hilary was certain that she had never wanted anything quite so much. "Though sherry would be even better. And, after that, dinner at the Randolph, perhaps?"

"There's an OUDS production on at the Playhouse," said Julian. He sounded faintly abashed, as though it were bad form to mention it. His hair hung down over one eye, dripping a little. There was a bit of leaf trapped in it; Hilary picked it out. "If you're not mortally sick of the theatre yet," he added hopefully.

Hilary wondered when exactly he had noticed the poster and how long he had spent worrying that she might not say yes. It occurred to her that if she were tired of the theatre after her honeymoon, then it would prove to be a long marriage.

"There's nothing I'd like more," she said.