At breakfast, there was little conversation in the hall, so Rhan enjoyed the sociable silence, interrupted by the chattering calls of the catering staff. She felt sufficiently at ease to gaze upwards at the extraordinary roof trusses, wondering if she would ever achieve the engineering knowledge to design such structures.
That day, Thursday, was the Freshers’ Fair. She wandered alone through endless corridors with groups on all sides offering all sorts of fun, politics or relative danger, none of which appealed to Rhan. There was so much to choose from that she chose nothing.
Back in the quad, everyone appeared to be wearing various college sport kits. Groups were assembling, chatting excitedly to new team members. She spotted Alice gathering her rowers and as Rhan crossed to her staircase, she could hear Alice loudly recounting Rhan’s deficiencies. It hadn’t taken long, she thought, for her to feel like an outsider. An aching loneliness seemed to be enveloping her and she knew only one solution that could numb these feelings of dejection: a run that would get her as far away from this place as possible.
It was good to be out of the college and running free, but she was aware that she must present a strange sight: a weirdly tall girl in bright white trainers, black leggings and headscarf. She had felt less conspicuous in Sunderland – she had known the places on the windswept coast where she would meet no one but a few isolated fishermen.
At breakfast the following morning, she was forced to listen with both interest and disgust to tales about the night’s drinking exploits. Two of her fellow freshers were already in trouble with the sub-rector. One of them, a character called Danny, was apparently a Cornish wrestling champion. They had been caught peeing in the main quad.
The prospect of meeting her tutors and the beginning of serious study became a beacon to renew her purpose in university life. Despite having done nothing all day, she arrived later than she intended. She eventually found where she was meant to be and was met at an elaborately carved oak door by Dr Field, the enthusiastic, chubby engineering Fellow of the college who had interviewed her almost a year ago. He brushed aside her apologies and Rhan got the strange impression that he was more nervous than she was. There was a tray containing two sherry glasses with different-coloured contents, and a glass of orange juice. He offered her the juice without asking which she wanted. She glimpsed just four people in the room beyond.
Dr Field led her into the wood-panelled room. It smelt of beeswax, cigars and a sweet odour that Rhan later identified as port. He introduced her to two young men whom she had noted previously in college. They stood holding empty sherry glasses and were introduced as Chi Tang from Nanjing and Coch Wei from Singapore. It was awkward as she stood towering over them, even with her head bent low. She knew that she should speak, but they were awkward too and only nodded their heads in greeting. Fortunately, Dr Field filled in the conversation gallantly, explaining that Chi Tang and Coch Wei had asked if they could have tutorials together.
‘This leads me to introduce your maths tutor, Dr Oliver, and George Blackledge, the fourth engineering student in your year.’ Dr Field escorted Rhan across the cosy room towards them. ‘We had intended to have six new students reading Engineering, but one chap fell seriously ill travelling in his gap year and will have to drop back. I hope he makes a full recovery from whatever dreadful parasite he picked up and that he doesn’t lose all capacity to carry out academic work in his two years away from it.
‘The other regrettable loss…is, erm…a young lady who was meant to be joining us. She’s decided against Engineering…to pursue Architecture.’
The slow awkward advance to the waiting pair presented plenty of time for Rhan to study the fine rug, which she decided was eastern Anatolian. One of the men, whom she took to be Dr Oliver, was wearing brown shoes, brown trousers and a matching brown jacket that made up a suit, worn by a short, weak-featured man who must have been close to retirement age. Returning her gaze downwards, she observed that the other pair of legs displayed a pair of neat brown suede boots, burgundy cords, and a brown-and-green tweed jacket with a blue tie. Rhan had to stifle a laugh at what she was beginning to recognise as an Oxford uniform. With a quick upward glance, she noticed that he was tall enough to be looking down at her bowed head.
‘So, this presents you with a choice,’ Dr Field continued, without needing much input from the students. ‘You can either have your tutorials alone, or with George here. It’s entirely your choice.’
There was an awkward pause before Dr Field remembered to introduce Rhan to the two men. Rhan smiled politely, not quite managing to meet their eyes.
‘Usually we give tutorials to pairs of students. It works well. We would generally recommend that approach. Three is too many, and one-to-one can be awkward and create other complications. So, would you two mind having tutorials together?’
Rhan cast another glance upwards at George and found his green eyes looking at her with amused interest. He made no attempt to speak.
She nodded her assent, vaguely wondering what it meant, but found herself standing slightly taller. George must also have nodded because Dr Field suddenly relaxed. ‘Good, good. Your first engineering tutorial would normally be with me on Tuesday, but at the beginning of this term, you will have ten days to prepare. Dr Oliver will tell you about tomorrow’s maths tutorial with him.
‘Here, in the meantime, are your lists of maths and engineering lectures.’ He passed four sets of papers around the students. ‘You will note that you generally have maths followed by engineering each weekday, with technical drawing or practicals after that.’
Dr Field now seemed positively relaxed, and continued in a semi-mocking, semi-commanding voice.
‘Something that has been added for next Friday is a special lecture on Sustainability. The examination moderators have expressed concern that we, the Engineering School, were not adequately covering that subject. Sustainability is meant to permeate all areas of study. The head of Engineering has therefore asked me to notify all students that a guest speaker from the concrete industry is coming in to talk to all years. I am sure that you will all want to attend!’
Dr Field then passed over to Dr Oliver who told them at length how to find his office for the next day’s maths tutorial.
Rhan was acutely aware that she was hardly making a good impression, so as the lecturers were finishing, she made up her mind to talk to her new tutorial partner, and possibly the other two. She steeled herself to ask George where he was from. She looked up, but he was leaving the room, followed by Chi Tang and Coch Wei. Surprised at being left alone, she turned to the two tutors who were helping themselves to an extra sherry.
Tentatively Rhan asked, ‘What a lovely Turkish carpet. Is it as old as it looks?’
That was sufficient to launch the dons into discussions on wall panelling and carpets. Ten minutes later, she was able to slip away without having to say much else.