WRITTEN BY GABE ELLIS
One of the biggest lessons in life is to be yourself – and those that matter will always love you just the way you are
That first year, the college was holding a Springtime Ball. This wasn’t going to be like the type of Ball we had in sixth form with a few flashing lights and DJ Disco Phil; this was black-tie-and-ballgowns. This was Oxford.
I’d arrived in October, but I could still hardly believe I was actually there. Sometimes, walking from my college room to the faculty building, I found myself gazing at carved stone arches, feeling like an extra in Inspector Morse. I half-expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I didn’t belong, that it was all a hoax – because how could I possibly have got in?
“Have you decided what you’re wearing for Saturday?” asked Rosemary. She had the room next to mine, and was adorably earnest and ridiculously privileged. “I was thinking of wearing either my plum taffeta or the oyster silk. Will we clash?”
I mean, who has taffeta and silk gowns just hanging up ready for such an occasion? Not me, that’s for sure. The Ball had sounded exciting when I saw the posters and I’d had romantic visions of falling in love across a crowded room, but one thought of ballgowns and I felt overwhelmed again.
In my literature tutorials there were six of us; three whose fathers had also attended this very college, one whose dad was a Cabinet Minister and one with a photographic memory. Then there was me, considered outstanding in my local comprehensive but a relative dimwit here. I spent half my tutorials in perplexed panic, praying for no direct questions.
“It so reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir,” or, “This line surely alludes to Plutarch,” one of them would venture, sounding uncertain but looking utterly triumphant, and the others would either nod sagely or narrow their eyes, wishing they’d come up with the idea. Either way, they’d all actually read Plutarch or Ovid or whoever, while I’d be scribbling madly so I could look it all up later. It was like trying to follow the plot of a complex foreign film and barely even understanding the subtitles.
Mum was worried it’d all be too much. And it was. But I couldn’t leave…
“You are going to have the time of your life,” Mum had said, “I’m ever so proud of you. I know it’ll be difficult but you’ve earned your place with all your hard work, and if ever you feel it’s too much, you can just leave – it’s not the end of the world.”
Terms are only eight weeks long, so you’re too busy fitting in research, essays and tutorials to worry about much else. Plus, despite feeling like a fraud and a halfwit, I felt this huge connection with Oxford, as if the city willed me to stay.
In autumn, I had walked through the mists over Magdalen Bridge and felt its magic like a cloak. In winter, I had opened my curtains to landscaped gardens frosted white and gasped that I got to wake up to that view.
Returning to my room after Christmas, it had been a joy to bound up those stone staircases again, worn by centuries of celebrated students. Now I was one of them. Eventually, I might even feel as if I belong.
“I bet you’ll end up meeting some titled snob,” my best friend had teased. “He’ll be charmed that you never studied Latin and have no second home in the Alps, then he’ll whisk you off to his family estate where you can read all the classics in the library.”
“That does have a certain appeal, Meg. Mind you, I’m averaging twenty books a week at the moment, so I could do without reading for a while.”
“Is it true that there are seven boys for every two girls?”
“Yeah, we’re totally outnumbered.”
“You lucky so-and-so! And is it true that every college has a pub?”
“A beer cellar, yep.”
“What are they like? Is your college beer cellar the best one?”
I laughed it off and changed the subject. Meg was having a hoot at her uni – pub crawls, hangovers and chat shows with occasional essays – so how could I tell her I hadn’t even visited another college except for tutorials? How could I explain that every single day, other than for meals, lectures and libraries, I stayed at my desk from nine in the morning until eleven at night? Other people in college went out and had fun, but I couldn’t. Even working all those hours I was barely keeping up.
So the magnificent Springtime Ball was going to be the big social event of the year for me. I had a lot riding on it and of course I’d rather set myself up for disappointment.
Firstly, I called the hire shops and discovered that just a night’s hire was more than I’d normally spend on clothes in six months. I went to the local department store and hesitated between a lilac satin (too wedding-y) and an understated black number. I opted for the black, reasoning that I could at least wear it on other occasions, and choosing a white silk scarf to accessorise and contrast with it.
Within twenty minutes of arriving at the Ball, I realised the other students were giving me odd glances because my outfit was practically identical to the discreet and elegant waiting staff: black dress, white sash, hair pinned back. Rosemary came to my rescue, dragging me to her room and lending me a deep scarlet shawl, scarlet stilettos and a gorgeous clutch bag, but I felt nauseous with humiliation.
Queuing for the loos, I overheard someone from a neighbouring college sniggering about “token compos” – comprehensive-school students admitted just to make Oxford statistics look good. Then there was the moment at the refreshment bar when I hung back to see how other people ate the bewildering canapés and heard two girls recalling how someone had asked for ice in their drink.
“Lord, I thought I’d just die! She might as well have tipped lemonade in a Saint Emilion!”
I started to slink off to my room, utterly defeated, when I bumped into Dan…
We’d briefly chatted at the main lectures; he was at another college across the bridge, reading English with linguistics.
“Giving up so soon?” he teased, and suggested a drink in the late-night café near the market halls, which was particularly funny given our black tie and ballgown. There was an anti-establishment romance about it that appealed, and Dan’s impressive rugby-player frame did no harm, either.
We talked for hours, and over the last weeks of term we paired off properly.
Dan’s rugby-playing came from his father, a former Harrow man and now some big suit in the BBC. His love of languages and piano-playing came from his mother, a columnist for a national broadsheet. I asked him if he’d ever rebelled as a teenager, and he replied of course – he’d applied to Oxford rather than follow his father into Cambridge. At the time I’d thought he was joking!
Those early days were heavenly. Even though I still worked hard, it seemed worth it as I was making time to see Dan. Of course, any romance blossoming among Oxford’s manicured gardens and picturesque buildings enjoys the best of scenery, so half the time it felt like we were in a play.
He was blissfully attentive and jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
During the long vacation, he came to see me in my hometown, just a day trip, and we called each other a lot, racing each other through the reading lists.
When we returned for our second year, Dan and I became inseparable. I was proud to be seen with him, to hear him talk passionately about politics or quote poetry I’d never heard of, and I felt that, through Dan, I could belong a bit more to this overwhelmingly beautiful place.
“You don’t have to continue with French if you’re not happy about it,” he murmured, stroking my arm. I’d got good marks in my first-year exams, but I’d always felt that my joint degree of English and French gave me a far heavier workload than other classmates. “If you’re feeling overloaded, drop the French and do a pure English degree.”
“It would be simpler,” I agreed, “but the hardest bit’s done now. Even my tutors have said that the rest of the course will only get easier.”
“Look at me, sweetheart,” he whispered, “there’s no shame in admitting it’s too tough.” His blue eyes were hypnotic as he drew me to his chest, where I’d always felt safe from the world. “You’ve fought to get here, you’ve worked your socks off every week, so if you need to drop French, then drop it and be a bit kinder to yourself, hmm?” He smoothed my hair and I thought how nice it was to have someone looking out for me other than my mum or my best friend.
“Besides, if you weren’t doing French you wouldn’t have a year abroad, then we could find our own flat for our final year.”
Although I remember feeling a shiver of doubt – a suspicion that he was looking out for himself rather than me – I still did exactly that.
By Christmas of my second year, I’d dropped French and moved in with Dan…
Well, everyone’s allowed one disastrous relationship, and that was certainly mine. When we lived together in his rooms, Dan went from being warmly protective to being possessive and controlling, always wanting to know where I had been if I returned a little late from lectures, always persuading me to stay in Oxford for weekends and holidays rather than returning home to see my family and friends.
When Mum visited, he’d be cultured and charming but never welcoming, so that my mum felt a little stupid and blamed her own ignorance, assuming it was how “these people” were. She started visiting less often.
Thankfully, self-preservation instinct kicked in. After a year together and just six months of sharing a house, I told Dan I couldn’t share with him the following year as I needed to live in college.
This was a complete lie – all third years lived off-site and I’d had to submit special requests to live in college, but it was the only way I knew to break free. It all ended with a hurtful, horrible argument, with Dan making me feel inferior and worthless.
Thankfully, I went home for summer and recovered through familiar friendships, unconditional love and my seemingly-endless reading list.
Meg kidnapped me for a four-day caravan holiday in Devon and we had an absolute riot.
“See, this is how most students live,” she explained, as we ate cold pizza leftovers with large mugs of tea, watching daytime quizzes.
“This is normal. What you’re doing, with the cap-and-gown stuff, wood-panelled dining halls and two students in a tutorial isn’t normal. But I understand and I’m dead proud. I don’t know how you do it, and good luck to you, but you really need to have fun.”
“I think, now it’s my final year and I’m back in college, I shall just get on with it, get Finals out the way then have a massive knees-up. Promise! I might never work again, ever.”
For my final year, my love was Oxford: the ritual, tradition, the jargon and history of it all. I loved it. I might not have belonged with those people but I belonged in that university. Whenever I was at a loss in tutorials, I accepted it wasn’t through lack of ability, simply a lack of education.
Even now, twenty years on, I still wake up sweating sometimes, thinking that I’ve yet to do Finals, that I have to remember everything, every detail, date and essay and regurgitate it all in a week of twice-daily, three-hour exams. Then I realise I did it: Finals are history.
In that last year I was just as sentimental as ever. I always and absolutely believed that there was one man I was destined to be with, and that it could be someone I’d walked by in the street and not yet recognised.
It was an almost exquisite pain to think I might already have glimpsed him among the spires and cobbled streets, that I might even have brushed shoulders with him in a queue or passed him in a college chapel.
In many ways, I was right. When it finally happened, it was an immediate connection across a crowded room and when I looked into his eyes, my stomach flipped and I utterly, absolutely knew it was him. And it was indeed someone I’d walked past time and again…
As I’d promised Meg, we gathered a huge bunch of mates after our final exams and went out for the biggest ever celebration in our hometown.
It was a hot evening, one where everyone’s in beer gardens in T-shirts or strappy summer dresses. I felt completely at home, not worried about looking like the waiting staff or wishing I owned an oyster silk ballgown. I belonged here.
Meg was getting the drinks in and as I looked for her, I saw Rick… his eyes, his physique and his knee-weakening grin.
By the end of the night, I’d realised he was The One
It turns out that, as kids, we’d lived on the same street for years and I must have walked past him countless times.
“I went to Oxford,” he told me that first night, and I gasped, delighted. “I went there on a school trip when I was about eight!” And that was how it was – funny, unexpected, joyful.
When I look back, I’m proud of the teenager I was; hard-working and courageous and irretrievably romantic. When I see Oxford on TV, I feel a yearning with a sense of achievement. It’s part of my life but doesn’t define me or take me away from who I am.
The twist is that Rick and I now live in France – having dropped French at university I’m probably now more fluent than my tutors! I never did become a lady of leisure but I’m a book reviewer and a writer so I’m well-read in both senses. Rick and I belong together and now, with our family, we belong here.
Despite being one of the cleverest men I’ve met he has never made me feel inferior. Where he is, where my children are, is precisely where I belong.