It's a sunny summer's day and James Warwick has taken Jessica Avery for a day out to Oxford, where he was at university. They eventually end up on Christchurch Field........
They put down the bag and spread out the rug. They were not alone; many others had had the same idea. But Jessica felt privileged to be with someone who knew the town intimately, and for whom it meant so much. For a while they simply enjoyed the sunshine in silence. Then James asked: ‘So ... are you going away anywhere on holiday?’
Jessica had been lying down, eyes closed. At his question she sat up, laughing.
‘You sound like my hairdresser.’
‘Not this summer. Anyway, it’s a bit late now. What about you?’
‘Me neither. The finances are a bit....’ James lapsed into silence. They watched a scull slide by on the river, propelled by four powerful rowers.
‘Did you row?’ Jess asked when it became clear he wasn’t going to say any more on the subject.
‘I have rowed, but not competitively. Never played rugger or cricket either. Not here. I was always happy to watch others exert themselves.’
She leant back, supporting herself on her elbows. ‘So? What was your dream, amongst these dreaming spires?’
Another boat slid by. James watched it out of sight. ‘I always wanted to write. After I graduated ... I showed you the Sheldonian theatre, where the graduation ceremonies are held? In Broad Street, next to the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera.’
Jess nodded. Her feet and brain still ached from the long tour. If she forgot all other buildings she’d been shown today she would remember the Sheldonian. Its semi-circular perimeter was bounded by a wall topped by metal railings. At intervals, high stone pillars intersected the railings, each one surmounted by a large carved head. The Emperors’ heads, James had called them. The row of austere, curly locked and bearded faces, peered down with classical disdain at the gawping tourists.
‘I went travelling,’ he continued. ‘I’d not taken a gap year so that was how I justified it. Some of the bits of furniture around the farmhouse are from that time.’
‘The coffee table?’
‘Came from Bali. I’d kept a notebook while I was away and when I got back, I started on my magnum opus. My parents supported me while I worked on the book which I had no shadow of doubt would make my name and my fortune. Looking back I can hardly credit how confident I was. I must have inspired them with a similar confidence. But my Dad was quite a bit older than my mother. Although only in his late fifties, he suffered a completely unexpected, fatal heart attack. I knew I couldn’t sponge off Gilda any longer, it just wasn’t fair. Piers, who was employed by the Ad’ Agency straight from uni’, was always pestering me to join him. Said it was money for old rope. So I eventually took him up on it, and eighteen months after Oxford got my first job.’
‘Gilda told me you still do work for Piers, free-lance?’
‘For my sins. The gilt has gone off the gingerbread just a tad. The public are so much more savvy these days. You can’t just be humorous, you’ve got to be ironic. Then irony isn’t good enough, you’ve got to be post-modern, post-ironic. You know I’m trying to sell you something. I know you know I’m trying to sell you something. You know I know you know I’m trying to sell you something. And if your ad doesn’t go viral on the Internet, like the drumming gorilla, then you’ve failed. It can get a bit tiresome.’
‘Sounds like it. I wouldn’t know where to start.’
‘Don’t even bother to think about it. Life’s too short to worry about how to pitch the next deodorant campaign.’
Jessica laughed. ‘Did you carry on with your serious writing?’
‘Only sporadically from then on. I met and married Serena. Then we inherited the farm. It’s only in the last couple of years I’ve seriously tried to get back into it.’
‘What type of book? Travel? Fiction?’
‘A thriller, though it’s singularly failed to thrill anyone I’ve shown it to.’ They sat in silence for a while continuing to watch the river and the other people who’d also come to bask on this sunny riverside meadow.
‘So, how did you end up a city whiz-kid, Jessica Avery?’
‘Like you I was diverted from my original intentions by a friend. I was nearing the end of my PCGE. At a party I met an old friend who’d gone straight into the city after graduating. He was making megabucks and said I could too. I had all the right attributes, apparently. I’d find it a doddle and make a mint. I went for an interview with the Investment bank and that was it. I probably made more money in those few years than I’d have made in a lifetime teaching. So, although I have the certificate, I’ve never actually earned my living teaching, hence my plan to go back to college.’
‘You’re still determined on that? Do you actually need to work?’
‘I’d rather not rely on investment income to keep me going for the rest of my natural. Anyway, I want to work. I’ve been fortunate in this life. Others are not so lucky. I want to put something back.’
‘But in the state sector? By all accounts it’s a pretty soul destroying occupation these days.’
‘But somebody’s got to do it. And with our little ones on the brink of the education treadmill we, of all people, know how desperately needed good teachers are.’ She lay back on the rug again, feeling the warmth on her cheeks and eyelids.
‘Jess? Why are you smiling?’
‘Just enjoying the sunshine. And picturing the first day of school. Just think, in a matter of weeks Sash and Rory will already be at that first important milestone? My son’s life has gone by in such a flash.’
‘True. You’d think our perception of time would be stretched rather than contracted given how much has happened to us both in those few years. Don’t you think it’s strange? Both our kids children the same age, give or take a few months? Both have lost a parent in one way or another? Isn’t there a weird kind of symmetry in that?’
Jessica kept her eyes firmly shut despite being aware that he had leant closer towards her. She didn’t answer; the apparent storybook coincidence of their lives, backgrounds, ages and education was not lost on her. She had considered it often before and found it too pat, too laughably predictable to take seriously. Never one to do what was expected of her she found James’ suitability as a future partner almost claustrophobic. But the future was a long way away.
‘Jess?’ The day was balmy. She could smell the cut grass, hear the chirruping birds, distant happy voices and the occasional, strangulated quack from a duck against the background lap of the river. A warm and tasty mouth connected with hers. Why push him away and spoil this delightful moment?
She only opened her eyes when he pulled back from the kiss. He was still leaning over her, weight on forearms, hands linked above her head. His slightly long, unruly hair hung forward, shadowing his dark face.
‘Jess? You didn’t answer?’
‘I’ve forgotten the question?’
‘It wasn’t really a question.’
‘I commented on the symmetry of our situations? I wanted your thoughts, that is, if you have any on the subject?’
‘Symmetry on its own is not a good enough basis for a relationship.’
‘Plus mutual attraction?’
She shook her head. From an expression of soft-eyed doting, James had begun to frown.
‘There speaks someone who’s had countless relationships.’
‘I didn’t count. That doesn’t make them countless. And they weren’t relationships. They were usually just sex....’
His frown transmuted into a pantomime leer. ‘If that’s all that’s on offer I can do ‘just sex’?’
‘I know. I was there, remember? But it’s not on offer. I am trying to move on. Just because I don’t want to endlessly apologise for my past doesn’t mean I plan to endlessly replay it. And at least, when I did it, it was because I wanted to. It was never a commercial transaction.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Those overnight stays of yours, in London? You allowed yourself to be picked up? Your words. I inferred hookers?’
‘I preferred it that way.’ He sighed and rolled back onto the grass beside her, and stared up at the dappled blue through the overhang of a tree. ‘Answers a need but commits you to nothing.’
‘But doesn’t it leave you with a bad taste?’
‘Depends what you’ve been doing.’
He flinched. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Jess!’
‘It still gets to you, doesn’t it, that I enjoy sex? And that was when I was a free agent. I saw no reason to deny that side of my nature?’
‘Look,’ he said, after an apparent tussle with himself. ‘I know the arguments. When I was a lad I lived a free, sexually active life.’
‘Which even included Imogen, I understand?’
‘Did she tell you that?’
‘Why? Are you disputing it?’
‘Not at all. If she says we did, we probably did. I just don’t remember. Anyway, I sowed my wild oats. Then I grew up, got married. I believe in fidelity within marriage.’
‘So do I, and I wasn’t even married to Sean!’
‘And I accept, theoretically, that outside of a committed relationship, what’s sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander. I’m not the dinosaur you seem to think I am. But....’
He pushed up onto an elbow and stared down at her, his expression troubled.
‘I meant it you know. I wasn’t just spinning a line when I said I’d fallen in love. That’s the problem. It’s why we’re here. Why I’m still trying to woo you.’ He stroked his fingers across her brow then down her cheek to the point of her chin. ‘I love you, Jess. That’s why I find the thought of you behaving promiscuously so fucking hard to handle!’
‘I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry it hurts you. But I had to be honest. I couldn’t allow you to continue to think I was someone other than I really am?’
‘There’s such a thing as too much honesty! You believe in hitting me round the head with it. Think I may have preferred to continue with my misapprehensions.’ There was a protracted silence before he spoke again. ‘What will you teach?’
‘I’m returning to the previous topic.’
‘Oh. Children I thought.’
‘Ho ho. I meant subject ... age group?’
‘I did a math degree and was aiming for secondary level, originally. Math is important but recently I’ve been thinking, too many kids arrive at secondary school without the basic skills in reading and writing. And by then it’s almost too late. They, of course, are the ones who’ll have to duck and dive, even play truant, to avoid being found out. And they’re the ones most likely to become involved in anti-social behaviour, drugs and crime at worst, or at best, are the people whose adult lives will be blighted by fear of exposure. The able kids, the ones from supportive backgrounds, will always be fine. I want to help those who are slipping through the net. I can’t start a proper course till the new year because Rory is only doing half days at school to begin with but I’ve been thinking about special needs teaching ... something along those lines.’
‘That’s very commendable.’
‘I don’t need to be commended. I’m going to do it because I want to. Incidentally, is there a good book shop in Oxford?’
He laughed. ‘Of course. Blackwells.’
‘Good. I’ve been doing some research on the Internet. Before we go home there are a few books I want to get on dyslexia.’
James’ next comment was unconnected, or if there was a connection he didn’t reveal the chain of thought.
‘Don’t know what prompted him, but Daniel took himself off into town the other day and had his eyes tested. Apparently they’re fine.’