The ungainly, old-fashioned suitcase caught on the elevated threshold of the small entrance. The dull thud indicated the weight of the luggage and explained why the young woman was having difficulty manoeuvring it through the awkward opening.
The main oak gates were vast and ancient. It was difficult to imagine that the heavy black timbers could ever swing back on their hinges, built into the stone walls of the seventeenth-century gatehouse tower. The new student struggled to get through the smaller, inset doorway. Standing astride the high threshold, with one leg inside to hold the door open, she ducked her covered head and stood balanced – half in, half out of this new college world. She eased her smaller case past the doorframe with her left hand, leaned in and dropped it onto the worn stone flags with relief. Using both hands, she now swung the larger case through the doorway and up against the red sandstone wall that supported the carved vault of the gatehouse above her head.
The young woman let a rusty-red kilim backpack fall from her back, and stood clear of the door, which immediately yielded to a hidden closing force. It slammed shut. The narrow city street running between high stone frontiers of opposing colleges was sealed out, disappointing two tourists trying to peer through the opening. It banished the swarms of bicycles weaving their way between pedestrians, as well as the stacks of bikes propped carelessly against the college walls. The surprise, however, was the truncation of noise. The roar of an accelerating taxi and the calling of a tour guide were immediately muted, no longer able to infiltrate this enclosed fortress.
She had left the outside world. She was in.
A trickle of sweat ran down her neck, hidden by her headscarf. It had been further than she expected from the bus stop and the bus system had hardly been designed for use by strangers, but she could relax now. The occasion was not to be missed, so she ignored the other students who were reading the notices, and turned away from the advancing college porter, pulling her headscarf down over her forehead. People rarely dared attempt communication with an unapproachable woman. After three heartbeats, she heard the porter’s confident, steel-heeled steps hesitate, and then retreat.
Rhan knew that her appearance would single her out. Despite the relatively fine weather, she was wearing her long black skirt that covered her feet, her black coat buttoned to the neck, and her burgundy-coloured headscarf. With her ridiculous height and her stooped stance, she knew that she offended, but she was used to that and it had its advantages.
‘I have made it!’ she whispered slowly and emphatically to herself. ‘Yes!’ Then for good measure, she repeated it in a few other languages. The porter looked up in surprise and heard strange mumblings echoing off the masonry stone walls, funnelled back past the post lockers to his open window in the lodge.
The warm flush and ache from her exertions soon subsided, and she mentally pocketed the money that her uncle had urged her to spend on a taxi from the station. It was a good start, but now was not the time to think about that mountain of student debt.
Two or three steps took her clear of the gatehouse vault and she was standing in the bright autumn sunlight, which illuminated the main quadrangle. This was her college now, and hopefully her refuge. How and why she had been selected, despite her stilted and stuttering interview, was a matter of conjecture. She had arrived here because she had dared to try, because of her hidden, tenacious stubbornness at school and her refusal to fit the mould of her new family. Now was the moment of triumph. There might never be another occasion when she had a dream come true, and this was the college of dreams. Since her acceptance, she had immersed herself in the fantasy worlds that took flight from these buildings and this city.
The front quad had a range of different buildings on its four sides. Most of these worked together in a harmony that spanned several centuries, but to her left, dwarfing the medieval tower in the corner, lay the problematic and ill-fitting chapel, which was the pride and joy of the college just because it had been designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and housed Pre-Raphaelite artwork. There, in front of the chapel door and just twenty metres away, Inspector Morse had fallen onto the dusty paving slabs with a fatal heart attack. To Rhan, he had been the epitome of British charm, fair play and sympathy in a believable, yet fictional world.
As a student, Tolkien must have stepped through that awkward door behind her as a matter of routine. Would he have appeared to the porters to be deep in thought about his next tutorial? What would they have thought if they could have read his mind when he was a professor, filled with the ways of hobbits, the mystique of woodland elves on Middle Earth and an evil that would ruin the lives of all, even in the most tranquil parts of the Shire?
Another of Rhan’s favourite characters, Lyra, had also lived here in a different universe or two created by Pullman. Lyra had been brought up here as an orphan of the college, eating with the college masters, learning from the scholars and yet enjoying the company of staff and the city kids. She had played on the rooftops of that three-storey range of buildings opposite and had run through the high-windowed dining hall to the right. Rhan studied the stone steps up to the hall intently, knowing that she had hardly glanced at them at her interview, but was now aware that she would be eating there later that evening just like Lyra. In the rooms over in the corner of the quad, at the far end of the dining hall, Lyra had saved Lord Asriel from being poisoned by the college master.
The scene was indeed magical and unworldly. The buildings opposite were completely covered with ageing leaves and the hoary, horizontal vines of Virginia creeper. Even at the beginning of October, the thick branches still clung to their glossy red leaves.
The noise of approaching voices and laughter reached Rhan. It dawned on her with a selfish thrill how quiet it had been since the door to the street had closed. There were no clues to the existence of the throngs of tourists from around the world who populated the street outside, beyond the “College Closed” sign. She was within the college fortress. It was just a shame that the rowdy voices she could hear also seemed to be on the inside.
The young men who were searching the noticeboards for anything of interest were clearly also new, and wandered off sheepishly when the porter began to draw bolts that would allow the unfeasible gates to swing wide open.
The porter had a square, short frame, and was probably ex-military. His official bowler hat and horizontal bushy moustache would make him look strange anywhere else, but here he was part of the furniture. Rhan smiled to herself when he tried to move her case to let the big door swing open; he could not know that it was laden with books. Her moment of isolation was broken, however, and she felt obliged to mumble apologies into the ground, collect up her cases, and seek directions and a key for her room.
A few minutes later, armed with directions to her third-floor room on Staircase 6, her way was barred by the noisy party, which had moved into the front quad and was growing as old friends were reunited. The loudest and heartiest voice belonged to a sandy-haired, stocky girl who was addressed as Alice as she received welcomes with copious and affected kissing of cheeks.
So the world of Brideshead Revisited really exists, Rhan thought to herself. A plastic smile appeared on Alice’s face. Self-consciously Rhan attempted a smile, but suspected she was failing, so she adjusted her headscarf instead. The popular young woman confronting Rhan was so much more real than the fantasy worlds Rhan had been imagining.
‘Ah – welcome to the college,’ Alice announced in a shrill voice that made the new arrival the centre of unwanted attention. ‘I hope you enjoy your first year as much as I did.’
Rhan’s tongue failed her as she took in this confident girl. The most she could muster in response was an uncertain ‘Oh, thank you,’ mumbled to the flagstone path. Not that it mattered much as Alice continued and Rhan couldn’t help wonder if she spoke this loudly with the other newcomers.
‘My goodness, you are so tall! You should definitely sign up for the rowing trial. It’s one of the college’s main sports and the boat club guarantees a good social summer. Have you rowed before? It doesn’t matter but, where did you go to school?’
Rhan felt totally out of her depth and felt she had to escape from this barrage, but Alice was flanked by two young men, effectively barring her way. She had limited experience of interacting socially in public, but knew she was making a complete fool of herself.
‘I am going to find my room.’ Rhan managed to say as she walked around them, her eyes intently staring downward.
There were several seconds of shocked silence.
‘Odd character!’ a man’s low voice pronounced. The scarcely whispered comments were clearly intended to reach the ears of the disobliging first-year.
‘She could be just shy,’ added another voice, followed by an unmistakable comment from Alice.
‘Well, I used to feel sorry for shy people, but I’m afraid now I just find them rude.’
‘No loss, Alice – she’s far too round-shouldered for rowing. And I don’t think she was sold by your summer Pimms parties either. Not the ideal candidate.’
The laughter resumed, leaving Rhan to fume as she walked away
Her garret room overlooked the quaint city streets, which teemed with outsiders, yet it failed to excite Rhan as it should have done. It had a washbasin, a bed, a desk, two chairs and a boarded-up fireplace. The unpacking was soon accomplished and hardly changed the character of the room. But then – nothing.
She felt uneasy at the idea of having to share a bathroom on the next floor up with four or five strangers, especially if they were going to be like Alice and her male sidekicks. All the unheeded warnings against a mixed college came to mind.
The enthusiasm of her arrival was already expended, and was starting to be replaced by anxiety and loneliness. She now thought of Alan Bennett, another predecessor, whose gritty reality was perhaps more appropriate than the magical fantasies she’d been looking for.
She took to swearing at herself in Armenian, never a sign that things were going well. She should be used to being lonely, and even her parents would have been no help now. She had left home and was at university, so she just had to make the most of it.
It now became her turn to scan the noticeboards and collect the deluge of junk mail already filling her pigeonhole. Going through the circulars amused her for half an hour. She shoved the blue educational book on sex in a drawer for perusal much later, if ever, but she carefully placed on the mantelpiece a letter from her tutors asking her to “drinks” at eight-thirty after dinner the next night.
She phoned Sunderland, but it was an ordeal. There was so much she could not say to her family, even to her sister who had never been to university. She must not mention that there were only four students starting Engineering in her college and she appeared to be the only girl. She must not mention how mixed everything was and, above all, she must not let her sister hear her cry. Thankfully, her sister was very easy to distract and only really wanted to discuss that day’s developments regarding her engagement. Rhan, for the first time, felt pleased to hear of her sister’s new life, even if it now allowed little place for the gawky little sister, who remained unmarried and an “infidel”. Rhan ended the call feeling that there were still advantages to being away.
In the throng waiting for dinner, there was general excitement: a hundred and fifty young people, all wanting to know one another – except her. The girls were enjoying being at the centre of small circles of boys, and clearly felt no need to saddle themselves with such an unapproachable creature as Rhan. She sat alone on the crowded benches, sandwiched between two boys, who ignored her. With her head down throughout the meal, she hardly noticed the dining hall that she had expected to enjoy so much.
At school in Sunderland, she had not minded about being a loner, but it had been different. The local boys all seemed small and immature; they would never think of talking to the foreign girl. The Muslim boys knew better than to even look at her. The Muslim Asian girls had, however, accepted her, mainly because of the popularity of her older sister. They appreciated that she rarely spoke, but let her tag along with them, even if she never really joined in. Here, in these new surroundings, where everyone was out to make new friends, she was ashamed of her social ineptitude.
She thought of talking to the boy on her left who looked even more homesick and miserable than her. That made her smile – her, homesick? The boy was probably away for the first time, while she had left home years ago. Yet Rhan imagined that the boy still had a home, whereas her lovely house and secluded courtyards were now just a pile of broken rubble after the shelling. It didn’t stop her feeling inadequate for failing to make the boy feel better.
She returned to her room and read Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. Thankfully, Jane Austen had absolutely no interest in Oxford, one way or the other.