Chapter 3 – The Girl from Aleppo

Dr Oliver, the intense, dry-mouthed maths tutor, seemed to enjoy the challenge of the first tutorial with the unusual students. Rhan sat on one side of him, while George sat on the other.
They listened with interest to the slight man’s instructions, musings and jokes over the Oxford system of tutoring, aware that Coch Wei and Chi Tang had presumably heard the exact soliloquy an hour ago in their tutorial.
‘All our terms have eight full weeks numbered logically one to eight. Now you started two days early to settle in, so we are still in noughth week, ha-ha! Your lectures in maths are shared with the physics students and will be at nine each morning in the Natural Science Museum. If you get lost in there, you could find yourselves with shrunken heads in the Pit Rivers section of the museum, ha-ha! Your engineering lectures and practicals follow on afterwards and Dr Field will tell you about those.
‘Now back to today and this week’s maths. I would like you to read this book on matrices and sets. Please answer the marked questions at the end of each section. Concentrate in particular on the use of determinants. The booklet is of course available at Blackwell’s or you might find a copy in the college library. Now normally in tutorials such as this I would go through any questions you had difficulties with, if any, ha-ha! For what is left of today I will help you with the first few questions, and you may recognise the first chapter from A-Level Further Maths.’ He paused, before asking, ‘Did you do Further Maths A-Level?’
There was a slight pause as he glanced at the silent students. ‘Yes and no,’ he said, interpreting Rhan’s slight shake of the head and George’s nod.
George asked some polite questions as Dr Oliver filled a sheet or two with numbers, while Rhan simply looked on, understanding only snippets of what he was explaining as he neatly manipulated the large bracketed sets of numbers. She felt a deepening dismay that she was only taking in a fraction of what her tutor was trying to teach her.
It was a relief when the hour ended and she and George could each head off to hunt down the book Matrices and Sets, so she could report back next Thursday afternoon, as instructed. George and Rhan parted without a word to each other. She frowned at George’s brusque departure, disappointed. He just gave her a slight smile, pulling just one side of his mouth – or was it a grimace? For the first time since she had arrived, she had actually wanted to have a conservation. She was anxious to know if he had taken in anything during the last half-hour discussion of vectors and determinants. She was disappointed that her supposed partner had just headed straight off as though she was not worth the slightest effort.

As she searched the books in the college library, Rhan wondered about George. She had noted how he appeared to get on with so many in the college – except her. Her hope that study would restore balance to this frightening, surreal world now looked unpromising.
Rhan had to buy the textbook from a bookshop across the road. She entered the quaint little shop doubtfully and began to search for the obscure maths book. Once again she felt her senses overcome; it was like Dr Who’s Tardis. From the cramped domestic-sized front parlour visible from the street, she passed into book-lined larger rooms, then stepped down into a more spacious sales floor before emerging into a space that felt like an underground warehouse, crammed with more books than she had ever imagined in one place.
Later, with Matrices and Sets open on the desk in her room, she felt ready to tackle the subject. The first two sentences appeared innocuous, but then each line of subsequent text and each progressing mathematical formula quickly evolved into a frightening new domain of mathematical jargon and symbols. The words gave only minimal hints to the derivation and direction of the logic.
After reading the first page three times, she turned to the next page, then the next, and flicked through the first few chapters with a sinking heart. This book was the worst of the nightmares that she had discovered since arriving in this illusory city. The longing to be back at her old school in Sunderland felt like a physical pressure, pushing against the insides of her body. She guiltily muttered a self-indulgent prayer to her parents – she needed their intervention more now than at any time since their death.

By Wednesday, four days of struggle with the textbook had confirmed her utter sense of failure in maths. Despair in advance of her tutorial had subsumed her previous self-pity about either loneliness or homesickness. She attended lectures in both maths and engineering and these just confirmed her inadequacies. The maths lecturer, performing to a vast hall of mostly young men, lost her within ten minutes. The smaller engineering lecture and the technical drawing made some sense but felt irrelevant as she waded and drowned in the gobbledygook of her maths textbook.
On the Monday afternoon, she made herself go for a second run. This time she noted how people in the streets or in the park reacted to the lone runner in a headscarf. On the Tuesday she simply wandered the streets, enviously watching the tourists who now seemed to have so little to worry about. She wished she could join them and simply move on, to visit the next city.
In vain, she attempted to give herself metaphysical slaps. At eighteen years old, she had already suffered more irreversible losses than most of the population of Oxford. Her early life had been ruined, but she was also lucky – her life was not in peril and she had a future, even if it may not be at Oxford. She had what her friends living in tents in Jordon or Lebanon could not even dream about. Yet such buoyant thoughts did not help for long. Previous hurts and sorrows had been obstacles to overcome for the sake of her sister or parents, but she was on her own now. Despite everything, she had never glimpsed depression before. She was surprised at how easily she could slide into the dark grip of despair. She crossed roads carelessly, almost hoping to be run over – an accident would remove her from this failure and her disappointment.
Her mathematical inadequacies were so unexpected. At school, the real challenge had been to hide how easy she found maths. It now came as a shock to find she could not grasp the subject nor understand the text. The ten main questions required by the tutor remained almost totally unanswered. It was all beyond her.
Her telephone calls home offered no reassurance. Her aunt had never heard of a matrix and repeated her advice – if Rhan had been her daughter she would be doing Islamic Studies rather than Engineering. Her sister could have been sympathetic, but was even more obsessed with her engagement. The outgoing and popular Aisha had settled quickly into Sunderland, but her life was now changing. She had lost interest in doing well at school and was now much more absorbed in her move to Bradford after the wedding. As usual, Rhan felt like the awkward second sister, who never fitted in anywhere.
‘Yu’ll just ’ave to work harder,’ Aisha had said. ‘Yu can’t ’ave y’bed back – it’s covered in engagement presents. Eee, it’s all so exciting! You just keep at it – yu always managed to get top grades some’ow at school, so y’can now. Yu’ve been there nearly a week and ah bet yu’ve not made friends. Ave you even spoke to anyone yet, or looked at ‘em?’
Rhan admitted only to herself that university had been a complete failure. She dreaded the prospect of returning to her uncle’s house. It would be really awkward now that she was no longer a child.
That evening she waited in the queue outside the hall for supper, her headscarf cast low over her face, her shoulders hunched, thinking of what job she could do based on her A-Level exams. There was the added complication of where she could live – the prospects felt very lonely. Her contemporaries waiting on the steps around her gave her a wide berth; they had learnt not to try talking to the weird girl.
‘Hi Rhan! Sorry to disturb you, but how are you getting on with that matrix tutorial?’ She recognised George’s voice, although it sounded strained and very different from the confident banter that he used when surrounded by his hearty friends. He was standing directly in front of her on the same step. He just carried on talking, without expecting a reply.
‘I’m afraid I’ve not got far – I am really struggling. I just can’t get my head round it or even understand the questions. I’ve been looking at it for days and it just means nothing to me. Can you help me, please?’
She looked up, pulling back her headscarf slightly to look, almost for the first time, at the troubled face of her tutorial partner. His green eyes no longer indicated detached amusement; she could no longer see the assured arrogance that she had assumed would prevent them from even being acquaintances. She stood up slightly straighter so he was not looking down on her, but then she had to turn away from him and let her scarf obscure her face. She felt ridiculously lightheaded and struggled to prevent herself from laughing like an idiot. Play it cool, she told herself angrily. She could tell that he stood ill at ease, watching her to see how his strange engineering associate would react.
‘Are you laughing at me?’ he asked, slightly amused.
She gained a bit of control and spoke, almost for the first time since her arrival at university.

‘Sorry George. It is such a relief to hear that you too are struggling. You look like I felt twenty seconds ago.’ She fought the urge to ask how someone who had everything needed her help. He was confident, presumably from a good school, with Double Maths A-Levels, probably with top grades – and yet he was asking her, the foreign misfit with just the basic maths background, for help. She bit her lip and cast him another glance. She laughed again, slightly more naturally this time at the sudden reversal of her despair.
He, in turn, this time threw back his head to laugh, but it was short and his expression quickly returned to doubt and anxiety as he looked down at her. Despite all his friends and high life, she felt sorry for him, but she still couldn’t help giggling.
‘Sorry,’ she repeated, studying his face, ‘I heard the other two discussing one of the questions and assumed you…I thought it was just me who was stuck. Yet suddenly I find that I am not alone. They can hardly send both of us home, can they?’ Her head was down again, trying to hide her smile. ‘I can tell you what I have learnt and which questions I understood, but it’s only bits and pieces. It won’t be much help.’
‘Thanks Rhan! That would be great.’ He sounded relieved.
There was a crash as the dining room door above them at the top of the steps flew open, and the college steward looked down with interest at the pair of them standing close together on the steps.
Rhan looked around with embarrassment, suddenly mortified at the spectacle that she must be creating, and checked to see if others in the queue were watching. Only a red-headed friend of George, two steps below, was taking any notice, smiling in amusement.
‘That’s David,’ George explained. ‘Come on, let’s talk over dinner.’ She nodded and they walked up together. As they filed through the open half of the hall door, he followed her closely. They were among the first into the hall, so she simply walked to the middle of one of the three aisles of long tables for the students. She looked down, as normal, but she was well aware that she was no longer alone. She forced herself to play it cool, hoping he didn’t realise just how giddy she felt.
‘Well, pleased to meet you Rhan. Is that what I should call you?’
She nodded at his formal reintroduction. They were standing next to each other, looking at the table, waiting for the dons to take their places at the top table so that they could all sit down after a perfunctory grace by the sub-rector. Other students were filling the benches around them. She felt his shoulder brush against hers, so she moved away just a fraction. Some of the warnings that her aunt had given her about young men came to mind; they no longer seemed quite as ludicrous as Rhan and her sister had thought. Fighting the lightheaded giddiness, she eyed the worn, polished oak bench, desperate to sit. George was now looking closely at her face. He moved his hand to his hip and she felt his elbow behind her back, providing surreptitious support that she could not spurn while the sub-rector said grace. Then while everyone else was taking their seats, George grabbed the water jug and filled two glasses.
‘You all right? You’re rather pale,’ he murmured as he sat close to her, watching her sipping from a glass. Apparently not expecting a response, in a louder voice he announced, ‘This is such a relief, Rhan! At least it sounds like we’re in the same boat.’
‘Thank you,’ she responded ambiguously as she sipped her water, wondering at his surprising attention and empathy. She felt even more surprised at his sensitivity for covering up her weakness from those nearby. She looked around, noticing his friend David opposite her, who was talking to a girl Rhan knew was called Fiona.
‘I had begun to think my short university career was a complete catastrophe,’ she confided. ‘I was resigned to going back to Sunderland, a failure.’
George looked up in surprise and immediately responded in a Northeast dialect. ‘Sund’lund! Wey, yer n’ver a Mak’em, like?’ He grinned and switched to imitating Rhan’s slightly stilted English. ‘David old chap, have you ever heard such correct and well-pronounced English? One would think that she must be Dutch!’
She laughed easily at herself. ‘Well I come from many places, but Sunderland on the North Sea has been my recent home and I was also born near there.’
David smiled. ‘Sorry Rhan, but even I don’t think you sound like a northerner and I’ve never even heard of a…Mak’em. Mind you, you don’t sound like a southerner either. Sunderland was the place that led the charge to get out of Europe, wasn’t it?’
Rhan nodded. ‘My English came from my mother who taught me using a series of old books from the 1950s,’ Rhan admitted. ‘You think I speak strangely? I have been in Sunderland several years, but I have been slow to adapt.’
‘No, it’s perfect,’ George said with emphasis. ‘It’s only different because it is so perfect. You sound like an émigré princess.’ George was obviously fishing for information without asking direct questions. After a week in effective solitary, Rhan didn’t mind as she was actually enjoying talking, and had to check herself from ranting. The questions were probably just polite and they didn’t expect full answers.
‘Well, my sister and I have been living with my mother’s brother and family. They took us in and have been exceedingly kind and hospitable. But they have five of their own children, so I was relying on this degree for independence. My sister is taking another approach; she is engaged to be married.’
‘So you didn’t fall for any of the Sunderland boys?’ George asked.
‘I was head and shoulders taller than most of the boys in my school.’ Rhan found this unusually easy to admit. ‘In fact, until I came here I had never come across anyone taller…which makes you a real freak in my eyes.’ Both David and George laughed, along with the young man to Rhan’s left who was listening to her occasionally. Fiona smiled in a puzzled manner, looking intently at Rhan.
‘You don’t eat meat?’ George asked, looking at Rhan’s vegetarian option. ‘Is that for ethical or religious reasons?’ He asked for the same dish from one of the team of young servers who made good pocket money after-school.
‘Not really. It is only because the butcher’s streets in Syria and Iraq put me off eating meat. I’m Christian, so have no great excuse.’
‘Wow, Syria and Iraq, you have been in some interesting places. A bit more exciting than Brighton.’ George glanced at David, suspecting he had not heard her response.
‘Syria?’ David responded from across the table. ‘I attended a wedding in Beirut when I was a kid. We went to the Beqaa Valley and travelled up to Aleppo for a few days. This was before the war,’ he added for the benefit of several others, who were now listening to the conversation. ‘Anyway, I’m glad to find that you can talk after all. We’ve never actually seen you speak to anyone, so we presumed you were very … religious or something.’
‘You know Aleppo?’ she demanded in surprise, ignoring the rest. ‘That was my home.’
‘The city of Christian cathedrals, it was amazing. There were seven, or nine, within a square mile or something.’
‘Yes, I was baptised as a Maronite, although in Aleppo I also used to go to the Armenian cathedral with my father. My great-grandfather was a Palestinian Christian who met his wife in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. She was an aid worker from Durham. Each generation kept up the British connection, yet married a range of middle-eastern nationalities and religions. My mother married a Christian water engineer and we lived in a cosmopolitan area of Aleppo, except for a few months in Iraq and trips to Sunderland. The religious aspects never seemed important until recently. My mother’s brother, my uncle, returned to Britain and married a Muslim lady from West Yorkshire.
‘Sounds interesting,’ David responded, smiling. ‘Until you got to the bit about marrying someone from Yorkshire. That’s bad.’
‘I come from Yorkshire, so David’s entire knowledge of that county is based on me,’ George explained, before adding quietly, ‘Your college nickname, Miss Isil, is rather incorrect then?’
‘It says much about the general ignorance of the college,’ she retorted. ‘Many of my neighbours have probably been killed by extremists…or by Assad, or the Russian bombing, or by the Americans.’
Another young man joined the conversation from across the table. ‘So why the headscarf and black coat, if you don’t mind me asking?’
She shook her head. ‘This is what Christians wear in Syria. It is also a compromise on what my Muslim cousins and aunt would want me to wear in public. Anyway, enough about me; where are you from?’
George responded for them all. ‘David and Fiona come from down south, the home counties. I come from North Yorkshire, so I know a bit about Sunderland. I went to a local school – not the private schooling David had. Then I worked on a building site and taught English in China in my year off.’
The conversation flowed easily and even the pauses were comfortable. Her head still swam slightly and she could almost watch herself from above, sitting chatting to a group of strangers. Even more bizarre was that most of them were male. She became acutely aware of the close contact, particularly because her black garb and strange manner had previously isolated her from such proximity. She had difficulty knowing whether moving away from George towards the boy on her left would indicate that she had some hang-up, but she had no idea whether George even noticed the occasional contact with her any more than he presumably had with the bloke on his other side. Rhan was relieved when he had occasional conversations with Fiona; even she managed a few separate words with David and the boy on her left, just to show that George was not special.
‘You were in Syria?’ David asked. ‘Not a good place to be, particularly Aleppo, but you got out before the worst of it, did you?’
‘Yes well, my parents were paranoid, or so we thought. They sent my sister and me over here to school early in the civil war. They had previously had to flee Iraq after just a few months and my mother had left southern Lebanon when young, so they knew the signs of trouble.’
‘Good grief!’ George said. Everyone on the table was trying to catch this conversation so the question from David could not have come at a worse time.
‘So where are your parents now?’
There was an awkward pause.
‘You don’t need to answer that,’ George said quietly, seeing the slight shake of her head and her face tighten. A little more loudly, he said, ‘So, are you going to make the college football team, David?’
David was able to talk at length about his inadequacies at football to cover his embarrassment.
A bit later, she returned to an easier subject. ‘Did David say that you have been watching me?’ Rhan asked George quietly. ‘How do you know I never speak?’
‘I’m afraid we have all been watching you from a distance,’ George responded, with a look at David. You and the organ scholar are certainly the most interesting characters in the college.
‘Charming! Observe but do not engage.’
‘Well you didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone, boy or girl. Would you have chatted at that first tutorial meeting if I’d tried?’
‘No, I suppose not,’ she conceded.
‘So, as your tutorial partner for the next three or four years, I decided not to be rejected in the first week, but to tread very carefully. I was also rather scared of you, I suppose!’
‘Well where are we going to address these matrices?’ she asked, changing to what she thought would be a safer subject. ‘How about the library?’
‘Sorry, but you underestimate the depths of my ignorance. Would you mind if we avoided having this session in public? Your room or mine?’ His eyes dropped, realising that it was placing her in a difficult situation.
A sense of the unreal still carried her along. An image of her extended family, and what they would say, flashed through her mind again. Yet this was a different world.
‘Yours? You probably have coffee and milk?’
‘Yes, fine’ he agreed, smiling.

There was nothing of the accidental contact from the slap on the shoulder, which George gave Rhan several hours later in appreciation of her insight into Question 6. It was their third attempt and one of the last major sticking points.
‘You’re a bloody genius!’ he emphasised in relief. ‘You’re right, that’s what that paragraph was looking for. So, the skinny matrix there is the “Eigen vector”, which Question 7 is on about. Let’s shove it in.’
There were papers and books scattered over the desk and among record sleeves on the floor after their six-hour study session. George had been pleased and surprised at her interest in his vinyl records of David Bowie and Pink Floyd, but they were aware that the college was now silent around them. Rhan’s headscarf had slipped; she had given up trying to keep her distance, and up to the breakthrough, they had been sitting with their heads very close together, quietly discussing formula and sentences from each other’s book. She found the excitement of the intimacy and his warm, rich breath more effective than coffee at keeping her awake. She wondered what it meant to him, but in the exhilaration of being alone with a young man, she was surprised to find that she was only really worried about the opinion of George’s neighbours – especially when she had to creep up to the bathroom upstairs. The whole evening had been a surreal experience.
‘Come on, that will have to be enough to get us through,’ she sighed.
‘Yup,’ he grunted, flopping his head onto his arm. ‘God, it’s been hard work. It’s half past three. Time to give in. It will be light in a few hours. Do you think we made sense of most of the questions?’
‘Well, perhaps 60 percent. What a book! Let’s see how many questions we’ve answered: 2, 3, not 4, most of 5 and 6, and a bit of 7. Not 8 or 9. We need to tidy up the answers, but will that be enough and do you think Dr Oliver will mind that we worked together?’
They both yawned as she stood up.
‘I have no idea,’ he responded without concern.
‘Well, thanks for all the coffee and everything. See you tomorrow after lunch.’
‘Are you skipping lectures?’ he asked, surprised.
‘No. I am still hoping that one day the lectures will shine some light on some of this maths. I will be there.’ She reinstalled her headscarf.
‘Well, in that case, I’ll see you at breakfast in…well, just a few hours.’
Rhan opened the door to the landing, aware that others were asleep close-by. ‘Goodnight,’ she whispered with a smile.
She tiptoed down the uncarpeted and resonant wooden stairs, trying in vain to be quiet. With relief, she reached the external door at ground-level and stepped outside, pausing on the path surrounding the grass square. The quad was empty and refreshingly silent. Some oddly shaped clouds could be seen peeking over the roofs of the surrounding buildings, lit up by the city’s light pollution beyond the college walls. The still courtyard reminded Rhan of the yard at home in Sunderland, safe from the streets outside, where gymnastics and feats of daring had been the primary preoccupation for her and the young cousins.
After a moment’s hesitation, she skipped off the path and ran straight over the grass, past the “Keep off the grass” sign towards her own stairs in the opposite corner of the quad. Enjoying the soft grass and the extra space not available in the yard at home, she adjusted her stride, threw herself into a handstand, took three “steps” with her hands, and sprung back to her feet, her headscarf and black coat still in place as normal.
She had taken only a few self-satisfied paces across the grass to the sanctuary of her staircase when the silence was broken by a clatter of a window opening behind her. There was the quiet but unmistakable sound of clapping. She grinned and without looking round, she raised a finger over her shoulder towards George’s window. It was the first time she had ever made that rude gesture and she had no idea whether he could have seen it in that light, but she guessed he would be amused by her defiance and cheek. Her whole body tingled in excitement at the idea that she might have a friend. She’d never felt so alive.

There was no return to normality for her at breakfast. George was already seated with friends when she walked in, but he beckoned her over to a seat he had saved. This broke the normal protocol of sitting in the order that students staggered into breakfast, but no one objected and she was greeted by nods and smiles and had to say ‘morning’ three or four times as she sat down. Being totally withdrawn and silent was no longer going to be an option.
For those sitting around George, their late-night ordeal to prepare for their tutorial had clearly been a topic of general conversation, as far as breakfast chat went. She was relieved to find that it was not a secret.
‘Morning, George! Are you still buzzing from all that coffee last night? You clearly look pleased with yourself now that we have something prepared for Dr Oliver.’
‘Well that’s me – dedicated to the protestant work ethic!’ George replied. Rhan had seen George noisily join a contingent heading off to the catholic chaplaincy last Sunday and had heard, but not fully understood, his joking about the excessive Jesuit influence in the college, so she responded with an Irish twist she borrowed from Father Ted.
‘That’ll be you and me excluded then. Anything that was correct from last night’s effort could only have come with the help of my prayers to the blessed Virgin Mary.’ Several heads from around the quiet breakfast tables shot upwards by this early morning surprise from the quiet girl, previously known as “Miss Isil”.

Lectures were also very different. ‘I usually sit at the front – the benches are less crowed there,’ she urged as they walked through the museum between aisles of beetles displayed in trays and past the reconstructed bone structures of a couple of dinosaurs.
‘But I have a new paper aeroplane design I want to try out,’ George protested. ‘Please try the balcony?’
She was pleased to agree and followed him up a spiral stair to the timber gallery. The view of the lecture hall was good, but the rows were ridiculously packed.
‘Sorry, bad idea!’ he admitted once they were squeezed into a row at the front behind the solid balcony rail. ‘It’s been fine on previous days, but appears to be getting rather too popular. Cosy isn’t it?’
Twenty minutes later, she whispered, ‘You are not listening at all, you childish kid.’ She watched him create a bat-shaped paper aeroplane. His activities involved his elbows encroaching into Rhan’s space far more than necessary, which she observed with interest and even brazenly retaliated. They took in little of the lecture, but managed to keep awake.
The flight of George’s paper plane, just as the lecturer concluded, was extremely spectacular involving a complete circle, before crashing to the feet of the retreating don. He ignored several other planes that landed around him, but Rhan was horrified when he suddenly stopped and picked up George’s elegant bat-like model, and waited for silence. The packing of pencil cases and files and the rush to the doors all stopped, as everyone wondered if the culprit was in trouble.
‘It is always disappointing to see that the engineers and physicists of today…,’ there was a pause while the grey-faced mathematician peered at his silent, frozen audience before he pulled George’s origami to pieces, ‘…have no better designs than in my day.’
He was immediately contradicted by the flight of a circular, modern paper creation with an almost triangular tail, launched apparently from the bench to the right of George and Rhan. Everyone watched, including the lecturer, as it dipped and soared twice in a beautifully straight trajectory, hitting the blackboard above the don’s head. He snorted, and marched off while everyone, including the relieved George and Rhan, burst out clapping.
Leaving the museum lecture theatre, Rhan and George walked with other students over to the Engineering lecture theatre, which was in the base of a separate six-storey tower. They walked side by side on the footpath, talking occasionally to Coch Wei and Chi Tang ahead of them, or to engineers from another college behind. Rhan was glad of the exercise and fresh air between two lectures after her short night. The occasional touch of George’s arm enlivened her more than the fresh air and was surprisingly reassuring.
The next lecture, on electricity, was more civilised without the physics students, and the subject more comprehensible. As soon as it was over, they dashed back to college, promising that they would buy bikes to save time and effort in future. They reconvened in Rhan’s room for a final polishing of their input before the afternoon tutorial, but made little extra progress.
‘Sorry, but I need food before we go,’ George admitted after an hour. ‘We’re nearly there. Any tea?’
‘Sorry, I only have green tea,’ Rhan replied, smiling. ‘With one mug, one plate, one knife, and a teaspoon. It is silly isn’t it?’
‘No it’s fine. That solves the milk problem. I’ll get some food from the lunch bar to share back here, if you can make the brew.’

Ten minutes later, sipping the green tea, George said, a little surprised, ‘That’s almost nice.’ He passed her the cup of tea in exchange for yoghurt. ‘And cosy.’
She idly watched him copy the last answers before he put down his pen and finished off the last spoonful of the shared yoghurt.
‘Cosy, but crazy!’ she agreed, taking her turn for a sip of the tea. She decided not to admit that, less than a day ago, she had hardly spoken to a boy who was not “family”.
‘Well maybe, but Coch Wei and Chi Tang appear to be totally inseparable already,’ was his reasonable, yet illogical response, indicating that he had guessed what she meant.
She said nothing, shaking her head and smiling. It seemed impossible, but he was clearly not finding her repulsive.

In a compact room at the top of the medieval tower, they again sat on either side of the tutor, but this time they were not just passive observers. Dr Oliver expressed no surprise at their difficulties, and was unperturbed when George admitted that they had needed to work together. Rhan even ended up speaking when she realised that George would think her a wimp for not admitting to a fair share of the problems that had defeated them. The hour-long ordeal was soon over and they were then receiving the ominous briefing on the next subject, for the following week.
Rhan shut the heavy oak door at the end of their tutorial with great relief and followed George, stomping noisily down two flights of timber stairs, without talking. George stopped on a landing, still a flight above the quad and excitedly grabbed Rhan’s file-carrying arm as she emerged.
‘Yes!’ he exclaimed. ‘We did it! You were great.’
‘But why the hell did you ask him about Question 5, which we had completed, you numbskull?’ She pretended to be angry, forcing his wrist upwards and pushing him backwards with her free hand.
‘To keep him off the last question, which we’d hardly touched, of course! Besides, there were aspects I still felt were unclear,’ he replied, defending himself physically and verbally.
‘That was so stupid!’ she retorted, shaking her head and laughing in disbelief as she let him go and lightly slapped his arm.
Back in the quad, they stood for a few moments in the early-evening autumnal sun, watching a troupe of tourists following the pink umbrella of their guide through the college.
‘Washing!’ he exclaimed, out of the blue. ‘Have you found the college basement laundrette yet? I’m running out of shirts.’
‘I had no idea that the college had such practical and urbane, or do I mean urban, facilities?’ she replied, laughing. ‘After all that mental excitement, an exploration of the nether regions of the college would suit me fine. I had thought I would be trailing my washing back up to Sunderland once I was kicked out for failing my first tutorial.’
‘OK, let’s dump our files, collect our washing, and meet in the back quad.’