Running a newly-ringless hand through her silver corkscrew curls, Georgina Strange yawned as she stared blankly out the window of the Wednesday morning 6:50 train from London Paddington to Oxford. The train’s hypnotic swaying slowed, and Georgina rummaged through her handbag for her new student paperwork. Loathe to use her mobile for anything other than telephone calls, she fished out a small steno pad and jotted down the address for Harris Manchester College, the only constituent college at the University of Oxford dedicated to mature students.
The train chugged into the Oxford railway station and lurched to a stop. With nothing but her handbag, her leather suitcase, and anticipation for her life’s second act, Georgina Strange stepped off the train and into the fabled City of Dreaming Spires. Though the city was known for its stunning array of historic buildings, Oxford’s train station was located in an arguably less attractive industrial part of town. Stifling another yawn, Georgina decided that walking to her destination instead of hailing a taxi would rejuvenate her travel-weary nerves — plus, the exercise would do her waistline good. After popping into a café for a takeaway Americano, Georgina strode with confidence into the heart of Oxford, her new home for the next three years.
The early morning sun cast a dreamy golden hue on Oxford’s iconic structures, which, Georgina’s guidebook informed her, comprised a hodgepodge of architectural styles ranging from Saxon to Gothic to Neoclassical, all the way to Postmodernist. Pausing near the Bodleian Library to sip on her Americano, Georgina marveled at the venerable library and nearby Radcliffe Camera, with its iconic pillars and picturesque leaden dome.
Mid-October leaves drifted softly to the pavement as Georgina rounded the corner from Holywell Street onto Mansfield Road, where Harris Manchester College sat nestled on its modest grounds. Georgina took a deep breath of anticipation as she stood outside the ornate stone arch that served as the college’s main entrance. Excitement and nerves filled her mind as she stepped through the imposing oak doors and officially began her Oxford career.
“Mrs. Strange?” a friendly voice called from the bursary to the right of the entrance. “Hello there!”
Georgina turned and entered the cramped little bursary, where a tall blond-haired woman with a bright smile waved from the other side of a window built into the wall.
“I’m Jill Bunton, head bursar here at Harris Manchester College.” The woman reached over the desk to shake Georgina’s hand then glanced down to reference a clipboard with a list of names on it. “You are Mrs. Georgina Strange … are you not? I believe you’re the only fresher arriving today.”
Georgina nodded and embraced Jill’s warm handshake. “Ms. Strange, yes. Mr. Strange passed away exactly a year ago.”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Jill gave a sympathetic look and pursed her lips softly. “Here, let me call the porter to get your case. He’ll show you to your quarters.”
Before Georgina could thank her, Jill disappeared from her window, leaving Georgina to look around at the wall of pigeon holes that served as student mailboxes. A bulletin board publicized the week’s menu for the college dining hall, and a flier advertised something called “sexy sub fusc” night at a local nightclub called the Purple Turtle. Though she already knew that sub fusc was the name for Oxford’s drab black and white student uniform, Georgina had no clue how — and, more importantly, why — one would make it sexy. Sexy sub fusc at The Purple Turtle… What a peculiar name for an establishment, Georgina thought. Not that a place like that is geared towards people my age.
Jill reappeared, this time on the same side of the window as Georgina. Standing next to each other now, Georgina could see that the bursar was significantly taller than Georgina had initially been able to ascertain through the small window. Despite wearing kitten heels, Georgina barely came to Jill’s shoulders. As Georgina looked Jill up and down, secretly trying to guess the bursar’s age, the porter walked in.
“Ms. Strange, this is Henry Jenkins, our head porter here at Harris Manchester College,” Jill said, her blue eyes crinkling with a polite smile. “Henry, this is Ms. Strange. She’ll be residing in Holywell Manor.”
“Please, call me Georgina,” said Georgina with a reserved, if affable, smile.
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Strange,” Henry said, nodding with a handsome wink. The porter had a mop of black hair and deep brown eyes that twinkled as he spoke. Georgina stole a brief glance to his left hand and noted the lack of a ring. His full face and beaming smile suggested him to be youthful, in spite of the crow’s feet by his eyes. Perhaps late 40s, Georgina thought, pulled out of her musings by the porter speaking. “I’ll be taking your belongings to your quarters. Is it just the one case?”
“Yes, I packed lightly.” Georgina kept her words intentionally clipped, chastening herself for finding someone attractive, even though Simon had made clear his wishes for her to move on with her life as his battle with cancer drew to an end a year ago.
Georgina followed the porter out of the college’s entrance hall into the main quad. The golden haze of dawn had given way to a bright and sunny midday, and Georgina breathed in the brisk October air. Michaelmas Term, the first of Oxford’s academic trimesters, began the following week, and she had loads of book shopping to do before her course properly began. A pair of shouting voices yanked Georgina from her dreamy reverie of taking in the sights of the college quad.
“Oy! Stop that right now, you hear?!” cried a woman’s voice. As Henry Jenkins led Georgina around the path, she caught sight of a young woman batting away a man trying to wrap his arms around her waist. The man was short, perhaps barely taller than Georgina’s petite 5’2” frame, with jet black hair and pale features. Georgina judged him to be no more than 25 years old. For her part, the woman appeared to be equally young and attractive, with blonde hair and tanned skin both undoubtedly from a bottle.
“What’s this? What’s going on here?” the porter asked, dropping Georgina’s case onto the weathered cobblestone path none too gently.
“Dexter cheated on me! I just — I just knew it! He seems to think I’ll take him back,” the woman said, struggling to remove the young man’s hand from her again. “I said stop it! We’re not together any more, Dex!”
“Ok, ok, fine,” Dexter said. He raised his hands in the air as if in surrender. “She meant nothing to me! You know how much you love me, babes. I know you’ll take me back. Right, Hannah?”
The young woman, apparently called Hannah, rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “I saw the text messages between you and that Sonika girl! And don’t you dare try to tell me she’s just a friend. Nobody sends nudes to their mates in the middle of the night, you cheating scumbag! Until you can learn to keep your eyes and hands to yourself, we’re through!”
Henry the porter wedged himself between the quarreling lovers and held out his hands to separate Dexter and Hannah. Turning a stern face to Dexter, he said, “Mr. Ellis, I’ll thank you to please keep your hands to yourself. I shouldn’t need to remind you of what the Junior Dean had to say the last time this happened.”
Last time? Georgina wondered, brows furrowed in concern.
At the porter’s threatening words, Dexter’s face darkened and turned solemn. “Yes, of course, Mr. Jenkins,” Dexter said with a nod, his arched brow and menacing glare belying his words. As Henry picked up her case and resumed their trek to Holywell Manor, Georgina swore she heard Dexter mutter under his breath, “I’ll get you back, Hannah, if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Ah, here we are then!” Henry’s voice, with its thick Yorkshire accent, was bright and chipper. Having awoken at 5 o’clock that morning to make it to Paddington station in plenty of time, Georgina felt quite the opposite of bright and chipper as she suppressed another yawn. The front door of Holywell Manor creaked as it swung open, smacking into the wall of the narrow entry hallway. Given that the building looked to have been built in the 1700s, Georgina marveled at the fact that the wall didn’t crumble at the trauma the front door had inflicted when Henry pushed it open. In front of her, Georgina beheld her new home - for the next year, at least. Having lived in a posh London flat for the majority of her 27-year marriage to Simon, Georgina wasn’t used to residing in an ancient building with creaking floors and wavy glass windows.
“Lovely, innit?” Henry asked, his glimmering brown eyes giving him a mawkish demeanor.
“It’s, well, it’s—” Georgina started, fumbling for polite words.
Henry mercifully relieved her, as he launched into an enthusiastic spiel about the college’s history. “According to college lore, back in the days when women were admitted but residences were still separated by gender, lovers used to sneak in and out to see one another through the windows! There’s allegedly secret passages through the cloisters too, but I’ll believe that when I see it, I will.”
“Mmm,” Georgina said, barely listening, for she longed for nothing more than a nap.
A light pair of syncopated footsteps came down the stairs, and a tall, lithe woman entered the common kitchen where Georgina and Henry stood. Georgina noted the woman’s height — a good half foot above her own — as well as her slim but muscular figure and blonde hair with a thick gray streak down the front left.
“You must be the new flatmate! I’m Lucy Saunders,” the woman said, extending a slender hand. “Pleased to meet you!”
“Georgina Strange. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Georgina said with a sleepy smile.
“I believe you’re the last resident to arrive,” Lucy said, her tone chipper and her speech quick. “There’s four of us in Holywell Manor: you, me, a graduate student called Kevin — I think he’s reading Maths, but he’s dreadfully quiet and mostly keeps to himself, so I’m not entirely sure — and a second-year archeology student called Miriam, though she says she spends most of her time at the Bodleian, so we may not see much of her. Jill the bursar told me you’re reading English. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Georgina said, charmed, if also overwhelmed, by her new flatmate’s bubbly verbosity. “And you, Lucy?”
“First-year reading English as well!” Lucy said gaily. “I owned a yoga studio in Norwich for over two decades before I realized I wanted to be a writer. Plus my ex-fiancé broke off our engagement, so I had an opportunity to start fresh, as they say. I never thought I’d get accepted onto a course at Oxford of all places, but I applied on a whim and, well, here I am.”
“I applied after my husband of nearly three decades passed away from pancreatic cancer last year,” Georgina said. “For years I worked as an editorial assistant at The Financial Times. Back in the ’80s when I started, you didn’t need a university degree to be an assistant. But after the recession, the newspaper laid most of us old-timers off, only to replace us with unpaid university interns.” Georgina sighed wistfully. “Not that it much matters, as print newspapers are going the way of the dodo. Besides, when Simon got sick I wanted to be home to care for him. Now that he’s passed on, well, I suppose it’s time for me to start my proverbial second act in life.”
“Oh dear, I’m terribly sorry for your loss,” Lucy said, grasping Georgina’s hands in her own. Though the sentiment was welcome, Georgina did not particularly care for the awkwardness that came with unsolicited human touch.
“Henry, weren’t you going to show me to my room?” Georgina asked, feeling trapped in the spotlight of her own creation.
“Yes, miss, right this way,” Henry said. The friendly porter showed Georgina to her room, which was, mercifully, on the ground floor. While she was wont to admit it, Georgina’s joints weren’t what they used to be, and a set of narrow, uneven stairs built prior to building codes would simply not do. “Everything is on the ground floor, then?”
“Your quarters are, yes miss,” Henry said, “though the toilet you share with the other residents is upstairs on the first floor.”
Georgina groaned internally at the thought of having to climb the stairs simply to use the loo. She had henceforth been spoiled by her smart London flat, with its his-and-hers ensuite, elevator access, and 24-hour doorman. Her new room, whilst cramped, was arguably suitable. It contained a twin bed pushed into one corner, a basic desk with matching chair, and a washbasin with a small mirror. With much relief, Georgina noted that her quarters were already furnished with an electric kettle that would no doubt have been state-of-the-art in 1992. Georgina sighed to herself and wondered what on earth she had gotten herself into. University. At her age.
Mrs. Mimsy Pettibone, Georgina’s very best friend of two decades, had scoffed at her declaration that she would pursue a degree. As the paragon of British propriety, Mimsy Pettibone, née Chalmondley, turned up her nose at the notion of a widow such as Georgina going off on her own and entering academia after an arguably successful station as a middle class London housewife enjoying charity balls and ladies’ societies. But Georgina had always yearned for more out of life than gossipy civic clubs and afternoon teas, especially when the harsh realities of the 21st century workforce left her laid off and without a university degree.
“Shall I show you to the JCR?” Henry asked.
“I beg your pardon?” Georgina was torn from her nostalgic reverie. The porter faltered in the doorway of her room, as if unsure of whether or not to leave her be.
“The Junior Common Room,” he explained. “It’s where all the students socialize. Even got a full bar and a billiards table!”
“Yes, yes, sounds lovely,” Georgina said, the pressure to be polite outweighing her need for a nap. Back in the main hallway of Holywell Manor, Lucy Saunders popped her head out of the simple kitchen shared by the manor’s residents.
“By the way, Georgina,” Lucy said, “do you bake by any chance? There’s a charity bake sale on this weekend in the JCR. I’ll be baking my favorite fairy cakes. If you want to go, we can share a booth. It will be a brilliant way to meet other freshers!”
Lucy’s warm enthusiasm began to ease Georgina’s travel-weary nerves. She smiled and replied, “That sounds lovely, Lucy. Back in London I baked many a homemade treat for various charity events. I think I’ll whip up a batch of my favorite scones.”
”Brilliant, brilliant!” said Lucy. “Henry, I’ll take over from here. Come now, let me show you around the JCR and fix us a cuppa.”
The duo strolled in the early autumn sunshine through Harris Manchester’s well-manicured, if modest, quad. Harris Manchester College was one of the smallest colleges in the university’s collegiate system. Like its academic rival Cambridge, Oxford had a unique structure that tended to confuse outsiders, particularly foreigners. Each student was a member of both the university and a specific college, the collegiate membership often had little to do with the discipline being studied. Whereas many modern universities applied the word college to specific academic groupings, such as a business college, Oxford students across all colleges could each be seeking the same degree. Whether a member of the elitist Christ Church College or the humble St. Catherine’s College, Oxford students at each college would graduate with the same degree designation. Nevertheless, rivalries persisted among the colleges, and many students at the larger, more historically prestigious colleges had hardly even heard of Harris Manchester College. Those who had heard of it often knew it for its paradoxical truth as being both the youngest and the oldest college at Oxford: the youngest in the sense that it only became an official Oxford constituent college in 1996 (though it had a much older history outside of Oxford), but the oldest in the sense that it catered exclusively to students 21 and older. The foyer of the college’s main building greeted Georgina and Lucy with the scent of musty books and tea cakes. Lucy led Georgina down the hall, their heels clicking on the worn stone floor. As they approached the JCR, muffled shouts came from within. Georgina and Lucy shared a concerned glance as they entered cautiously.
“I don’t care what they say, I know you did it!” shouted an exceptionally pale man with dark brown hair, angular features, and a scowl on his thin face. “No matter what they say, I know it was you, Dexter!”
The man, who appeared to be in his mid-30s, stabbed the air with a bony finger pointed at the maligned lover Georgina had encountered earlier in the quad. For his part, Dexter held up his hands in a defensive pose.
“I swear, I didn’t touch your painting!” Dexter said.
”You sabotaged my pièce de résistance,” the other man said, his wan face pulled tight in a grimace. “You’re just intimidated by my talent, that’s it. With me out of the way, you think you’ll win, don’t you?”
Lucy cleared her throat loudly. “Gentlemen, please! What kind of a welcome is this for us freshers?”
The two men calmed down, turning to face Lucy and Georgina. “I apologize, ladies. You’re absolutely right,” said the man Georgina hadn’t met yet. He offered a limp handshake to each woman. “I’m Ben Miller. Third-year, reading art. And you are…?”
“I’m Georgina Strange, and this is Lucy Saunders. We’re freshers reading English. Pleased to meet you both,” Georgina said, though she didn’t entirely mean it.
“Dexter Ellis. Also a third-year, reading art. The pleasure is all mine,” said Dexter, whose tone had quickly changed from defensive to sleazy. He gave a cloying bow and kissed each woman’s hand. Georgina withdrew her hand summarily and resisted the urge to screw up her face in disgust. From the corner of her eye, she could see Ben Miller rolling his eyes at Dexter, indicating to her that his behavior was nothing new.
“If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I must be getting to the Ruskin Art School to try to salvage what remains of my masterpiece,” said Ben, slinging a worn leather satchel over his shoulder and shooting a death glare at Dexter as he huffed out of the JCR.
Dexter took his exit quickly after Ben left, leaving Lucy and Georgina alone in the JCR.
“What do you reckon that was all that about?” asked Georgina. “That chap Ben said something about Dexter thinking he would ‘win,’ but I wonder what he was referring to.”
“I’ve no clue,” Lucy said with a shrug. “But to be honest, I do know that Dexter isn’t exactly the most popular fellow around.”
“I’ll say!” Georgina replied. “This morning I saw him fighting with his presumably now ex-girlfriend, a young lady called Hannah. She mentioned something about him cheating on her. Say, do you think there’s anything to Ben’s accusations of Dexter ruining his artwork? That Dexter chap does rather seem to be a cad, but on the other hand, that Ben fellow did seem a bit melodramatic, if you ask me. Tortured artist and all that nonsense.”
“Yes, Ben’s a nice enough fellow, but he certainly does have a flair for the dramatic, so maybe his claims of Dexter sabotaging his masterpiece amount to nothing more than nicking some art supplies,” Lucy said. “I’ve only seen him around occasionally, since I just arrived on Monday myself, but Ben seems to play the part of the brooding artist well. The other day I saw him leaving Arlosh Hall with a portable typewriter. An actual, real typewriter! Who could have imagined that the only technology you and I had for writing when we were young would one day become a hipster status symbol.”
“Oh please, Lucy,” Georgina said, “I’ve got to be at least twenty years your senior. Are you really old enough to have learned to type on a typewriter rather than a computer?”
Lucy nodded. “I’m 45 actually! But I like to think I look younger than that because I drink coconut water and meditate every day.”
Before Georgina could ask what on God’s green earth coconut water was — it sounded dreadful — the door to the JCR opened, and in walked a well dressed man wearing a waistcoat, a monogrammed pocket square, and a broad toothy smile. “Ah, you must be two of the new freshers! I’m Aaron Lowe, Junior Dean here at Harris Manchester College.”
Georgina noted his firm handshake with appreciation. Aaron Lowe gained further approval from Georgina when he pulled out a chair for each woman to sit. Georgina asked, “I’ve heard of a dean, of course, but what exactly is a junior dean, Aaron? You look rather young to be a member of college staff, if I may say so.”
Aaron blushed. “Ah ha, I’m only 25, which does make me one of the youngest members of HMC. And no, I am not officially college staff. I’m a third year student myself, reading Law. The role of Junior Dean goes to a student and is meant to serve as a sort of resident adviser. You can come to me for quite literally anything — academic issues, counseling, personal problems you may encounter. Or I always welcome students to just pop round for tea, of course. My office is also the suite where I reside, so I am here for residents at all hours.”
“That’s lovely!” said Lucy. With the peppy spirit her new friend and flatmate exuded, Georgina wondered if there was anything Lucy didn’t find lovely.
Aaron brushed back the flaxen mop of hair out of his blue eyes. His complexion was a pinkish alabaster with ruddy cheeks. Based on the panache with which he was currently dressed, Georgina guessed him to be from a solidly middle class family.
“Where are my manners? I haven’t even asked your names yet,” Aaron said.
“I’m Lucy Saunders, and this is Georgina Strange. We’re both freshers reading English,” Lucy said. “We’re both staying in Holywell Manor. I’ve been here since Monday, but Georgina here only just arrived this morning. I was just showing her round the JCR.”
“Brilliant! Well, as you can see, the JCR is a lovely common room for all college members to enjoy. We’ve got a billiards table, a karaoke machine, a brand new flat-screen, and of course, a fully stocked bar,” Aaron said, gesturing around the cozy recreation room.
“Who tends the bar?” Georgina asked, finding it peculiar, though certainly not unwelcome, to have a bar on the college grounds.
“There are a couple of students, though most of the time you’ll find Ben Miller tending bar. He seems to need the extra cash,” said Aaron. “Anyway, are you ladies aware of the charity bake sale being held in the JCR this Saturday?”
“Oh yes,” Lucy said, “Georgina and I are delighted to be participating! I’ll be baking my grand-mum’s recipe for fairy cakes.”
“Sounds divine,” said Aaron. “What about you, Georgina?”
“I’ve decided to bake my famous homemade scones,” said Georgina. “If I do say so myself, they’re simply to die for.”