Oxford Blues, a short story by James Andebeer. Date added: 2010-07-27. Times viewed: 381.
- Please SEND FEEDBACK - Writers love hearing from you. You can view the Authors profile here
The three of them seem small, huddled on the platform below me, as I lean from the train window to say goodbye.
'You've got the sandwiches?' my mother asks.
'On the table in front of my seat.' Luncheon meat with salad cream, wrapped in a Wonderloaf bag, enough to feed half the carriage.
'Your suitcase is safe, isn't it?'
'On the luggage rack above the seat.' Flimsy cardboard, with adequate space for a family of four on a week's holiday to Blackpool.
'And your ticket?'
'In my pocket.' Newcastle to Oxford, changing at Birmingham - a tortuous six-hour plod on tired, grubby British Rail rolling stock. Via London would have been more direct, but I've never spent a night alone away from home and never visited the unfathomable
labyrinth of the capital.
'Goodbye, son.' My father offers me his hand in a man-to-man gesture that takes me by surprise. I don't remember having shaken it during the whole of my seventeen years. It feels dry, the thick nails cracked where he chews them, the fingers nicotine yellow. Is he thinking that, when not much older than me, he was heaving his Royal Marines kitbag into a train like this before being spewed from a landing craft onto a beach in Holland?
My twelve-year old sister hops from foot to foot. 'Buy me a tee-shirt. And do some rowing - in a punt. Everyone does rowing at Oxford.'
'Maybe... I'll have to see.'
I've hardly conquered the citadel yet. This is a two-day trip for an interview at one of Oxford’s most venerable colleges, where I have applied to study law. I am the first member of my family ever to apply to any university, let alone one of the world’s oldest and most famous. I've never been a straight-A student, but since dropping my weaker subjects after O-levels and discovering an adolescent bookishness, my results have put me flookishly near the top of the year. The school usually manages to coax one or two outstanding pupils into the headmaster's old Cambridge college and thought it time to tackle Oxford. I am its ambassador.
With a screech and a jerk we are moving. My family stands waving steadfastly, diminishing into the distance as the train is sucked around the long slow curve out of the station and over the Tyne, heading south. Picking up speed, we rattle past rows of terraces back to back, their slate roofs gleaming black in the drizzle. I’ve grown to loathe this landscape, for I am special. I picture myself moving across quads with lawns of dazzling green, my stripy scarf aflutter behind me. I pass venerable walls of ivy-clad honey-coloured stone before tripping lightly up a twisty staircase to my room. By invitation I take tea with WH Auden, my poems in Isis having impressed. I bathe in Harold Wilson’s bonhomie after a particularly successful debate in the Union. That is my future. I bow my head to read: the pages of the Oxford University prospectus are thin as onion skins. For a year I have fingered them with the obsession of a religious devotee, desperate to divine my fate within.
Outside Oxford station I'm in a scramble for taxis when a driver suggests I share with another young hopeful already ensconced in the cab. I manoeuvre my suitcase into the boot, then attempt to pay the fare.
'No, no. You settle up when we get there.'
'Yes, of course.'
My fellow passenger pouts and turns a lazy eye on me.
'Hi,' I say. He looks away and is silent throughout the journey to the college.
At the porter's lodge a bustling curmudgeon in a bowler hat assigns me a room key and an envelope, then shoos me out of the gate.
My room peeps from under a gable into the High Street, its leaded panes framing a view of domes and spires. This is Oxford at last.
The envelope contains an extract from a law report on which I'll be quizzed in tomorrow's interview, but I can't concentrate on that now.
In a cupboard I find a neatly packed cardboard box. On top, a Monday Club membership card identifies Quentin Barham-Dewar as the owner. Beneath, resting on two hefty volumes of The Law of Torts, are a mortar board and gown. I put them on, and admire myself in the mirror.
A note handwritten on college paper has been slipped under the door to await my arrival: ‘Join me in the Buttery tonight at 8.30 for answers to the questions you're too afraid to ask. Rupert Zoff, second-year undergraduate, Jurisprudence’.
Gongs clang and I hurry to the refectory for dinner. Six robed figures stride to what I know to be 'high table'. One, rotund and rubicund in a clerical collar, raps a tablespoon for silence and proclaims: 'Benedictus benedicat'. We sit on benches at long tables and the buzz resumes. Opposite, four of my fellow candidates, evidently from the same school, chat enthusiastically with each other. The two people either side of me are turned to their neighbours, only their elbows jutting in my direction. I focus on my Irish stew, and slip out before the treacle pudding.
The cold air rushes in my ears. The stiletto spire of St Mary the Virgin points pugnaciously towards the stars. My new shoes pinch: the blisters on my heels are bleeding into my socks. I can't face the Buttery. Lolling on my bed, I spend the evening reading Jude the Obscure.
Rupert Zoff calls next morning, an hour before my interview. I mumble excuses for having spurned his invitation.
'So long as you're clear about the exercise?'
I've read it six times but am yet to get any purchase on it. 'Yeah, I think...'
'Good. Just remember - take your time. They don't expect quickfire responses. One isn't a QC yet.'
Sitting on a landing waiting to face my inquisitors, I realise my green and orange tie clashes with my new brown suit, the jacket of which is baggy on my shoulders while the trousers are tight around my waist. Twenty minutes after my interview is due to start, I hear hearty laughter on the other side of the door before the previous candidate emerges.
'You'll be alright there,' he whispers as I stand to go in.
I am motioned to a sofa facing three interviewers shuffling papers. The low wintry sun
spills through the window behind them, so I have to squint and can see only three silhouettes. Should I ask to move? Is this part of the test? But the questions begin, and without pleasantries we are onto the law report.
'How would you summarise the two main points of the defence?'
A very good question. How, indeed...? I'm remembering Rupert Zoff's advice. I stare at the paper, which is sticking to my fingers. I have all the time in the world...
I am startled by this command delivered in a deep rasping Teutonic accent, the like of which I have never heard and cannot place. Glancing up, sunlight and three skull-shaped shadows splash on my retina.
'Look at ze end of ze report,' the voice barks again.
I improvise a response paraphrasing the text's conclusion. We stumble on in this fashion for ten minutes when abruptly, instead of another question, there comes simply: 'Thank
After a moment I realise I'm meant to leave. One of the three has not spoken since I entered the room. I murmur to the candidate waiting outside, 'You'll be alright there'.
And ten months later, almost to the day, I begin my student career for real - reading history at Sunderland Polytechnic.
- Use for below to send feedback to author - View the Authors profile here
- The following form will send feedback to the author about this short story, please enter your e-mail if you wish a reply (which is obviously at the authors own discretion)