Chapter 4 – Hatter’s Tea Party

‘We have almost an hour to wait before supper and the wash will take that long. Come up to Tom and Danny’s room,’ George suggested, as they stood in an overheated basement watching their laundry churning in two machines.
‘But I don’t know them,’ Rhan objected.
‘Tom’s the really lanky, curly-haired PPE student – the Marxist – and he shares a sitting-room with Danny who’s also doing PPE. I said I’d see David Booth up there.’
‘PPE? Politics, something, and Economics?’ she asked, yielding somewhat.
‘Philosophy.’
‘Sounds interesting. Does David do PPE?’
‘No, he does Chemistry.’
She felt swept along, totally out of her depth yet again, but it was exhilarating to relinquish control and follow him up a front-quad stairway.
Even when they tackled their washing, he had suggested swapping clothes and sharing washes to separate the colours and the whites in two machines. Rather than refuse, she had asked him whether such behaviour could be considered normal.
‘No way!’ he had replied with a self-deprecating smile. ‘You’re the only one I could imagine asking…or who I would want to ask.’ On a lightheaded tide of fun, she had laughingly agreed with his scientific and domestic logic. It was all so unreal and exhilarating. As she followed George up the stairs, they managed to touch twice, almost accidentally. She wondered whether she would regret the excitement of the past twenty-four hours.

A confusion of music, smoke and people accosted her as she followed George into a palatial room on the second floor, which had separate bedrooms leading off at each corner. David was there, whom she had seen the previous evening. He theatrically waved an arm at her from the floor; he was seated at a low card table, which was covered in a brightly coloured cloth. She smiled and nodded back, wondering if she was being suitably cool.
Tom, just as described by George, was perched in an armchair, dealing cards. The girl, Fiona, looked up at Rhan curiously, but smiled at George. Tom, however, stood up to greet the newcomers.
‘Hi George, did you survive the tutorial?’ Laughing, he didn’t wait for an answer. ‘You’re Rhan, I believe? Pleased to meet you. Can I offer you tea? Coffee? Or a taste of this beer?’ He gestured at the bottles around the table.
‘Just tea, please,’ Rhan replied, attempting a polite smile. Then, after a second thought, she added, ‘Although after that ordeal a sip or two of beer would be great.’
‘I’m afraid you catch us starting early on three-card brag,’ Tom continued. ‘Do join us; it’s very simple and relatively harmless.’
‘Harmless? He lies, Rhan! It’s expensive,’ David complained from his seat at the table. The warning did not stop George, who immediately grabbed a cushion and sank down at the table in anticipation of receiving a hand. He appeared to forget the newly discovered friend he had dragged along, but she saw him looking to see if he needed to look after her.
From the other player at the table, there was a grunt that Rhan recognised from the Poldark television series to be a Cornish slur, but she could not catch what he’d said. He had cropped brown hair, broad shoulders and a rough-skinned complexion. As she looked at him with interest, Rhan concluded that he could only be the wild Cornishman that she had heard people talk about. She smiled grimly and Danny nodded to her, starting to move aside to give her space at the table. She raised a hand to decline his offer, but accepted a glass with some of George’s beer.
It was time for Rhan to act. After a second glance at Fiona, who was now chatting quietly to George and David, she realised that there was a need to show independence from her tutorial partner, even if this meant engaging in conversation.
‘What a wonderful room, Tom. You have windows looking out over both the front and rear quads. Would you mind if I looked at the views and…’ she paused here to gesture to the packed bookcases, ‘…your impressive collection of books and records?’
‘Please be my guest,’ Tom offered, gesturing with an upturned palm.
‘Gosh, aren’t Marxists polite?’ Rhan said to no one in particular, but to the amusement of all.
The spacious room had doors in each corner, and through one of these she glimpsed a small bedroom. The front windows had a similar view to George’s room, looking over the grass and activity of the main quad. The rear window was slightly ajar and she opened it wider, placing her elbows on the sill to look out; she glanced up at the Gothic stone arch, which was shaped nicely above her head. She took in the tranquil lawn of the Fellow’s Garden, flanked by the decorated stonework of both the college library and the rear of the Bodleian university library, with all the decorated paraphernalia of the fifteenth century.
Their histories, ranging over past centuries, seemed to whisper a sense of tranquil continuity. The noise of students arguing about a card game over her shoulder seemed to complement, rather than clash with, the scholarly scene.
Looking beyond the libraries, Rhan could see the delicately arched Hertford Bridge. She had seen pictures of this Italianesque copy of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs. But Rhan had seen the original on the slow and steady train journey across Europe, away from her father to her uncle’s house in Sunderland. She and her sister had stood holding their mother’s hands, looking down a canal near St Mark’s Square.
Here in Oxford in this dreamy world there was, however, none of the sad connotations associated with the Venetian convicts’ sighs as they took their last tragic sight of Venice before entering the prison quarter. This Oxford design had clear and accessible windows, and had no sinister purpose other than carrying a college corridor over the public highway. Feeling slightly disturbed, however, Rhan glanced back over her shoulder and saw George look up at her from his cards.
Reassured, she returned her attention to the bridge, appraising it in her new engineering role, wondering whether the stonework was indeed arching, or whether the stone was fake and merely concealed hidden iron beams. She wondered how the ancient stonework of her childhood city was looking now. She saw the world before her, but imagined how it would look exposed and laid bare from shelling and pecked by bullet holes from snipers. The condition of some of her favourite Aleppo buildings had been imprinted on her mind from images on the internet.
Comments from the players behind her about Arctic drafts and tough northern girls persuaded Rhan to close the window and to browse Tom’s bookshelves instead. She received a mug of tea that Tom had poured from an old, chipped teapot. She extracted Parliamentary Socialism, which she started to skim through, sitting in the corner, removed from the game and trying hard not to keep checking whether George was noticing her. Good-natured derision was poured equally on both Tom and her, with the suggestion that such reading material was wholly unsuitable for an engineer. Fiona slipped off just before they all thundered down the wooden stairs to the hall for dinner.

Rhan felt there were surprised looks from the assembled throng outside the hall as she walked between Tom and David, with George and Danny behind. Rhan felt as if she was glowing with pride at these fascinating new friends.
As they merged with the crowd before the door, George broke off and approached a large, self-conscious girl in the queue. However, as soon as Rhan joined them, the girl moved off.
‘Oh dear, Rhan,’ George smirked, ‘you’ve frightened her away! Hattie’s pretty different and…this place isn’t ideal for such temperaments.’
‘Did she think that I wanted you all for myself?’ Rhan asked, mortified. ‘Goodness, things were so much easier when I was a loner.’ George merely frowned as he considered this.
‘So…are you just being kind to me?’ Rhan continued. ‘Is that why you are being so nice?’
George smiled, shaking his head, but stumbled several times when he tried to explain. ‘No, I sort of want…I sought your help, remember? You are my partner.’ He received no help from her as she looked intently at him with furrowed brow, so he added quietly, ‘You are too lovely for me to feel sorry for you, but thanks for the beatification! Unfortunately, I’m not that nice.’
They walked up the steps towards the now open hall door.
‘Here, Hattie! Do you want to join us?’ Rhan said, waving at the surprised girl as she walked past their seats. Rhan offered her a place next to George.
‘Good move,’ whispered George, as Rhan walked past him along the bench where she brazenly pushed in to sit between David and Danny and opposite Tom. After initial surprise, they appeared pleased to make way for her.
They continued to mock the book she had been browsing and after that, they got stuck into the politics of the Middle East. She gradually learnt that Tom had Science A-Levels, which helped with the Economics and Philosophy, but he needed no help with Politics. Each time she looked over, she noticed that George was frequently and casually glancing at her, even as he chatted with Hattie.
Rhan was surprised to find that Danny the Cornishman was soft-spoken and very intellectual, yet she struggled to understand him. He mentioned that he had just given his first English lesson to two Libyan schoolboys, which laid him open to ridicule as the others also clearly struggled with his accent.
David, the chemist, had a wide geographical knowledge. He told her more about the wedding in Beirut, his trip into the Bekaa Valley and his visit to Aleppo for three days. Her eyes filled with tears, which she tried to hide with the headscarf. To find that there was someone she could talk to about home was overwhelming.
It was all so easy to speak and argue with these new friends. She mentally pinched herself; she had friends!
‘So what is a Marxist?’ She threw the question out to the three of them, knowing that she would not have to speak again for quite some time.