‘Who was that?’
‘Oh, that’s just Robbie Turner. He’s the son of our housekeeper.’
Cecilia wondered why she had felt the need to make it sound so trivial; to make him sound so trivial. Like that was all he was, some random servant who had hovered around the edges of her childhood, never really coming into focus.
She had been thinking about the matter all through lectures, trying to dissect it as she would the plot of a classical novel for an English paper, and the issue still accompanied her now, as she made her way down the broad steps of the Victorian building and into the street. The December air stung her cheeks. Quickly, she readjusted her scarf — an ugly green, woollen thing, but the warmest one she owned. Her throat had been prickly since this morning, and it had gotten worse as the day progressed. She hoped it was just the beginning of a cold and that it wouldn’t turn into a real flu or something. As much as she enjoyed the relative freedom of college life — this rare and unique intermezzo between her childhood and the role of wife and mother that inevitably loomed in her future — she hated being sick away from home.
The dark grey sky promised snow, and dusk was setting in rapidly. Cecilia hurried through the narrow streets of Cambridge, intent on making it back to her dorm room at Girton College before she got caught in the blizzard. The fastest way was via Barton Road, but that’s where they had run into Robbie this morning, and she found herself taking the longer route through Fulham Lane instead. It was ridiculous, of course. It wasn’t like their chance meeting would occur a second time. She’d never seen him there before, and she probably never would again. Since they had come to Cambridge, she could count the times their paths had crossed on one hand.
Her brother Leon never ceased to make fun of her for that.
‘You grow up with the boy, then you both leave for the same university, and you hardly ever talk to him again!’
Cecilia huffed out her breath in a cloud of steam. It wasn’t her fault she and Robbie moved in completely different circles, now was it?
‘Oh, that’s just Robbie Turner. He’s the son of our housekeeper.’
The more she replayed it in her head, the more awful it sounded. Had she really said that? Had those words actually left her mouth?
I need a cigarette, she thought.
She looked up and squinted. The race was lost. Fat, white flecks whirled towards her, peppering her scarf, her coat, her hair. She’d be soaked within minutes.
Across the street, the cosy yellow light of a teahouse beckoned. Cecilia frowned. She pictured the small student room she shared with her friend Alice. The books that awaited her there, demanding to be taken in hand, studied, understood; the stifling heat radiating from their little stove, the dirty mugs and the stale tea and Alice herself, all red-haired and freckled and nosy.
Cecilia crossed the road and pushed through the door of the teahouse. A little bell chimed a welcome as she entered. She took a table by the window, putting her scarf and coat ostentatiously on the chair across from her, to make it clear to the waitress she wasn’t expecting anyone else. Then she ordered tea with honey, and lit up. A cigarette wasn’t exactly beneficial for her throat, but she contented herself with the idea the honey would be enough to counter its effect.
Cecilia gazed outside, snug in the friendly warmth of the tearoom, and felt herself unwind. She’d been tense ever since she’d seen him this morning. He looked well. His blue eyes twinkling and mischievous as ever, a wide, slightly smug smile on his face. They hadn’t talked. Just waved and nodded as they passed each other across the street, he with his companions from the Student Communists, she with her posh girlfriends from Girton.
It had been a friendly enough encounter, but also painfully symbolic of what they had become. Casual acquaintances. A hello and a good-bye, without even stopping for a chat.
Maybe that’s the reason for my peevish remark, she contemplated.
Her flat definition of Robbie as the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper did him a grave injustice. She had known him since they were both seven years old; he was like a step-brother to her. They had all played in the nursery together, that dim, slightly dank treasure trove of a room, she and Robbie and Leon. They had been pirates at sea, knights fighting dragons, policemen chasing robbers. They’d make believe the nursery was a hospital, and then she’d be sick and Robbie would come and read her chart and ask her to cough and say ‘Aaa’, all with this solemn look on his face, and then they’d switch and he would be the patient, and she would arrange the covers so tightly around him he was barely able to move.
Cecilia could almost feel the cold touch of the old stethoscope again, as Robbie listened to her heartbeat. Absently, her hand travelled to her chest, then up, towards her throat. For some reason, the prickling sensation intensified and she coughed. Robbie was thinking of going to medical school next autumn, after he’d gotten his degree. At least that was what Leon had told her. She snorted. It wouldn’t surprise her. Leave it to Robbie to come to Cambridge to study Literature, then end up a doctor. God, he was so damn self-assured! Robbie Turner was the most confident person she knew.
He doesn’t need me. Not one bit.
The thought hurt her more than she’d like to admit. Their encounter this morning had confirmed it once again. Robbie was bright — brighter than she was, if you went by their academic achievements so far — and had easily won a grant to Cambridge. He had his politics and his books and his principles. They might have played together as children, but after they had come to here, they had drifted apart almost immediately.
Did she really mean that little to him?
And if so, why did she care?
After all, it wasn’t like she had put much effort into keeping in touch with him herself. She had wanted to, but somehow, the thought of introducing him to her friends embarrassed her. She had no idea why. It wasn’t because of his mundane background. If anything, her friends would relish the hint of scandal surrounding it all. “The lady and the stable boy” effect, or something equally ridiculous.
Alice certainly had. ‘Oh, really?’ she had said, with a look over her shoulder, after Cecilia had enlightened her about Robbie’s humble start in life. ‘Tell me, did he do much physical work?’
Cecilia rolled her eyes. The atmosphere among the girls at Girton was quite liberal. They often spoke about male students in such a manner. But for some reason, this time, Alice’s remark had annoyed her. The way her friend’s eyebrows had risen above the rim of her tortoise spectacles. The innuendo that had spiced her New-Zealand accent.
‘You should ask him and his friends to come over for tea sometime,’ Alice had proposed. ‘It’d be fun. I’d sure love to get better acquainted.’
Cecilia took a long, slow drag on her cigarette. An uneasy sensation churned in her stomach. Alice might have annoyed her, but she wasn’t completely wrong. Inviting Robbie over could be fun. It could be… an opportunity.
The uneasiness spiked. She sat up and tipped her ash into the Bakelite ashtray that sat like a squat dark toad in the middle of the table. A crinkle appeared between her brows. The few conversations she and Robbie’d had since coming to Cambridge had all felt stiff and awkward. Like they weren’t used to each other anymore. Could years of history between them have been forgotten so easily? Or was it just that they were different now?
She put her head in her neck and sighed.
Why am I ruining my afternoon by fretting about him? I should be studying, or having a laugh with my friends, or just enjoying this nice cup of tea!
It was clear he wasn’t wasting any time thinking about her…
Cecilia brought the teacup to her lips and took a careful, soothing sip. Then she closed her eyes, determined to clear her mind of all things Robbie Turner.
The snow was really starting to come down now. Robbie cursed himself. In his mind he could see his scarf lying there, sad and alone, on the mahogany benches of auditorium B, where he’d forgotten it after his class on Nineteenth Century French Literature. Professor Dawkes always closed up directly after, so there was no point in turning back for it. He’d have to go through life scarfless until tomorrow morning, at the least, which wasn’t exactly opportune in weather like this.
Robbie turned his collar to the cold and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets as he made his way downtown. He was feeling preoccupied, maybe even a bit melancholic. The basis for this sentiment had been laid this morning, when he’d ran into Cee in the street, and an afternoon of Rimbaud’s poetry had only succeeded in making it worse.
She looked good.
It had taken him a little by surprise. Not that he had considered her unattractive before, just that he had never considered her before, not like that anyway. The way she had strutted across the pavement, arm in arm with her friends, so self-assured. The gangly girl he had spent his childhood with was gone, and a young woman had taken her place. It was a strange realisation. One that made him acutely aware he had grown up too, that he was a man now.
Well, almost, at least…
He crossed the street at a jog, shoulders hunched up against the cold. He was meeting friends on the other side of town, so he had quite a distance to go. Still, when he passed Barton Road, he was almost tempted to take that route, even though it was completely out of the way.
She’s not there anymore, you fool. She has better things to do than walk up and down Barton road waiting for you all day.
He knew it was completely irrational, but at the intersection he slowed his pace none the less, missing scarf or no missing scarf, and craned his neck to peer up the road as far as he could.
She was nowhere to be seen, of course.
He shook his head and smiled at his own foolishness. Why was it that lately, whenever he started thinking about Cee, he couldn’t stop?
‘You should ask her to come over for tea,’ his friend John had said, as they had passed her this morning and he had explained who she was. ‘She wouldn’t say no. I can tell by the way she looked at you.’ A meaningful wink had followed, countered by a playful jab with an elbow.
Robbie grimaced. Yeah, she’d probably come when invited, after all, why wouldn’t she? They had known each other for ages. But the reason John had stated, Robbie was less sure about. The idea of Cee sipping tea in his dorm room with a couple of their friends was tempting, but also vaguely terrifying. What would he even say to her? And there you had another thing that was weird: he always knew what to say. To anyone. His youth as a protégée at the Tallis’ house had left him with the ease and self-esteem to be able to converse with people from all standings. His background had never bothered him; he spoke about it without getting defensive or embarrassed when called out on it, which had happened once or twice.
And yet he couldn’t imagine what to say to Cee.
A car honked him out of his reverie. He looked up and smiled when he saw the black Austin Twelve. The driver had rolled his window down, and Robbie recognised him immediately. ‘Dorian!’ He ran up to his old friend and they shook hands. ‘What are you doing here, man? I thought you’d given up on Cambridge all together?’ There were two more young men in the car Robbie didn’t know, so he nodded a quick hello.
Dorian laughed. ‘No, just on Literature. I finally decided to switch to Politics. Right now I’m showing my cousins around town. They came in from Dorchester this morning.’
The cousins smiled sheepishly.
He addressed Robbie again. ‘Where are you heading, buddy?’
‘To the Crown and Sword.’
‘That pub on Latimer Street?’
‘Yeah. Wanna come?’
‘Splendid! We’ve got some catching up to do. Besides, you haven’t seen Cambridge until you’ve seen its pubs, right?’ He raised his eyebrows at the cousins, who nodded enthusiastically. ‘Hop in. It’s no weather to be walking anyway.’
Grateful, Robbie jumped into the Austin. The heating was on, and the feeling in his nose and ears started coming back immediately. Dorian pulled out from the curb and they chatted for a bit. The cousins were brothers, apparently, and clearly terribly excited about being away from home for the first time.
Robbie remembered he had felt that way too, when he’d first set foot on the platform of Cambridge station. It had all been so overwhelming, like his life was finally starting. Now, more than two years later, he knew that hadn’t been the case. He enjoyed college life intensely, but he had also gained the maturity to realise none of this had actually been of his own choosing. It was his teacher in secondary school that had envisioned him as a Literature student; the man had even picked out Cambridge as the college for him to apply to.
It will be different next year, though, Robbie thought, and he felt excitement take him over.
Medical school. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it sooner. It suited him perfectly. He was empathic, interested, and had an admiration for the human body from both a poetic and a scientific point of view.
In the past his life had been guided and decided upon by other people: now it was time to start doing what he really wanted. What he wanted, for himself. It was breathtaking. There was so much to choose from; there lay such promise in the future. Again, an image of Cee. Out of nowhere. Why always her?
She made him feel helpless, like he wasn’t on top of things. It was unnerving, and yet he greatly enjoyed the sensation at the same time. Would she ever think about him too, once in a while? They interacted so little here at Cambridge…
Maybe I should take John’s advice, ask her to come to tea.
He thought back to this morning; the way her friend had looked at him over her shoulder, the ginger one with the glasses. Was it his imagination, or had Cecilia tightened her grip on the girl’s arm, pulling her forward, it seemed?
She’s embarrassed by me.
The notion came as a surprise, just like the pang it subsequently caused in his stomach; a feeling which came close to actual physical pain. He had never considered it before, but now he realised it could very well be the case. After all, if you really looked at it, he was just the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper, now wasn’t he? And Cee... The odds were she would probably marry one of Leon’s friends. An industrial from London or a son from a long line of bankers or something.
‘Hell!’ Dorian suddenly yelled, cutting straight through Robbie’s thoughts.
The car braked violently, and they were all projected forward.
‘What’s going on?’ Robbie asked.
‘Coal cart,’ Dorian huffed. ‘Bloody thing came out of nowhere! Hey, get a move on, will you!’
He slammed the horn.
There was a car honking.
Cecilia opened her eyes, and a small ripple passed across the surface of her tea as her hand trembled around the cup. A coal cart had gotten its wheel stuck in the gutter, just outside the window. The road was blocked and a black Austin that had been coming from behind had been forced to an abrupt halt. And there, in the back seat, his head half out of the window to try and see what was going on, sat Robbie Turner. The Austin had stopped almost directly in front of the tearoom, perfectly framing him in the window she was sitting at.
Cecilia’s lips parted. What to make of this? You close your eyes in order to chase the thoughts of a certain person from your mind, and when you open them again, the first thing you see is that very same person.
What could the universe possibly be telling you then?
She would’ve laughed, if she wasn’t so stunned.
The driver honked again, and the horses in front of the cart whinnied nervously, shifting back and forth, trying to dislodge their freight. The carter got down and took them by the bit to calm them. A little crowd of bystanders started gathering, and Robbie Turner jumped out of the car.
The first thing Cecilia noticed was that he wasn’t wearing a scarf. Instinctively, her eyes fluttered to her own scarf, lying over the back of the chair across from her. The image of tucking him in for warmth, like she had done when they played hospital, sprang to mind.
He didn’t see her, was entirely focused on the coal cart and finding a way to dislodge it. Two more men got out of the Austin and joined him. They all talked for a moment, then they put their shoulders to the cart.
Typical Robbie: always helpful, always active, always essential.
He’s essential to me.
The realisation took her breath away. It scared her. It froze her.
She didn’t know how to handle this. The situation was too obvious, too theatrical for her. The whole thing was like something Briony could’ve come up with in one of her crazy writings. Her sister saw romantic plots and destinies written in stars everywhere, her pre-teen mind predisposed to search for a meaning behind everything, it seemed.
But this was real life.
And Cecilia was a practical person.
Or she used to be, anyway.
Cecilia watched Robbie and his friends dislodge the cart.
She watched them shake hands with the carter.
She watched them slap each other on the back, and then she watched them get back into the black Austin again.
She could’ve tapped the glass of the tea room window to catch his attention at any given moment. She could’ve wrapped her scarf around her and ran out to say hello. She could’ve waved for God’s sake; he was so close he would easily catch it in his peripheral vision.
But instead, Cecilia just sat and watched and did nothing.
A strange sense of loss came over Robbie as the Austin jerked into motion again. Dorian and his cousins were chatting away happily, but he didn’t partake. He felt strangely detached, his melancholy peaking. It was like the incident with the cart had shifted something. Some invisible tectonic plate underneath his destiny. A door closed. A chance missed, one that would never present itself again.
It was silly and irrational, and quite romantic in a certain way, but then he was quite a romantic person.
Plus he had spent the entire afternoon reading Rimbaud.
I can’t ask her.
It was clear to him now. If Cee was embarrassed by him, he would save her — and himself — the aggravation of rejecting, or even reluctantly accepting, an invitation from him. He didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. He decided then and there to not pursue the matter any further. Not before he got a sign from her. If she did, he’d cling to it. With all his heart. He knew that already. But she’d have to give him one first.
He didn’t despair, though. It wasn’t in his nature to. After all, they were young, they had all the time in the world.
Yes, there was always time.
He was gone.
Cecilia sat in the teahouse, a big black hole opening in her chest. She looked out the window, at the sky getting dark outside. The cigarette between her fingers was forgotten, its ash cone growing until it broke and spilled on the table top.
There will be other opportunities.
If they truly belonged together, their paths would inevitably converge again.
This was an uncommonly romantic idea for her, but she found the theoreticality of it pleased her. The insubstantial aspect of it. Yes, better to let the feeling churn underneath the surface. Better to wait and see how things developed. Now wasn’t the time to take action.
Not now. Definitely not now.
After all, there was always time.