The university website had promised lawns and trees and a pretty medieval church.
Up ahead was a concrete tower block, its pitted surface painted in primary colours to resemble lurid Lego bricks. Narrow rectangular windows lay flat against the cliff face of the building in six horizontal lines, dull and dark in the late September sunshine.
Trundling her scruffy suitcase behind her, Sophie grimaced. What an idiot. Why hadn’t she visited first?
The school had laid on visits to Oxford and Cambridge, but she wasn’t in that league, been too focused on A level assessments to sort long road trips.
Students were pushing by, earnestly talking, and Sophie shortened Charlotte’s lead. Bringing a large brown labradoodle along wasn’t ideal but kennels were expensive. ‘I bet our room’s in that tower block,’ she said, addressing Charlotte.
Charlotte ignored her, weaving happily around a heap of cigarette ends on the grubby path; she had few expectations so was rarely disappointed.
Sophie squared her shoulders. Be more like Charlotte. Go with the flow.
The squat building beyond the entrance had sharp edges and a flat roof. A mottled, plastic panel had fallen off a wall, partly blocking the pavement.
‘It’s no good. This really sucks. Let’s go home.’
Charlotte promptly pulled on her lead towards reception.
Sophie sighed, imagining dragging her to the road, getting a taxi to the station and when they arrived back, Aunty Wendy’s disappointed face… No, Charlotte was right. Pathetic to drop out before they’d even walked in.
But the lecture-sized room with municipal flooring and yellow walls was jam-packed with new undergraduates and their families, queuing to register on the first day of the Autumn term, and Sophie paused, nerves swirling. This many people usually triggered undisciplined Charlotte bouncing; her fluorescent jacket might as well have been emblazoned I AM NOT A SERVICE DOG.
Charlotte leaned against Sophie’s knees, sensing her anxiety. Sophie knew she had to relax. Or Charlotte wouldn’t. She drew a deep breath. ‘Okay, let’s go.’
They joined the queue for A to E surnames and Charlotte immediately caused a stir, but she posed, enjoying being petted by impressed strangers. Genuine service dogs, focused on their work, weren’t supposed to be petted, but Charlotte was calm and looked the part. So far, so good.
As she waited, Sophie closed her mouth and breathed through her nose, fending off pungent teenage aftershave and celebrity-branded perfumes, the scents intensified by the unseasonal, humid weather and the stuffy room. No air con … she should have worn a thin dress, not jeans and an over-sized shirt. She hauled off her black cardigan and tied it about her waist.
A tall, dark-haired boy in a different queue was staring at his phone. Hugo Harrington? Couldn’t be him. Wouldn’t be seen dead in a place like this.
Her mobile bleeped in her bag. Isha, her BFF, had sent predictable pictures of her Oxford college. Hushed, immaculate lawns and dreamy spires.
Can we visit next weekend? xxx Sophie texted.
Isha replied immediately. Term hasn’t started yet. Come weekend after. Send Charlotte pictures!! xxx.
Will do xxx.
Isha understood about Charlotte. Six years ago, when Sophie’s parents had died in a car accident, she’d grieved in private but confided in Isha, and, four years later, when Aunty Wendy had given her a puppy, Sophie had confided again, explaining the unexpected surge of maternal love and how Charlotte helped fill the parent-size void. And Charlotte was still an anchor in a lonely sea, would always trump getting a degree, socialising, anything—
‘Name?’ The woman behind the front desk glanced up from her computer screen. She had short, spiky hair and shrewd eyes.
The woman frowned, eyeing Charlotte. ‘You’re not on the special needs list.’
‘Oh, I filled out the form.’ She hadn’t, hoped she could wing it.
Unforgiving, overhead strip lighting revealed lines of annoyance around the woman’s pursed mouth as she scanned the screen and typed, the faint clicks from the keyboard sounding rapid and professional.
‘I hate to ask,’ said the woman, ‘but would you mind sending it again?’
Sophie hid her relief, adjusting her bag strap, securely slung across her chest. ‘Of course.’
‘I’ll put you on the waiting list for a ground-floor flat. I’m afraid you’ve been allocated a fourth-floor room.’
Right. The Lego Tribute. ‘No worries.’
The woman handed her an envelope, her eyes still scanning her screen. ‘Your room key.’
‘Thank you.’ Sophie stuffed it in her bag and hurried away, struggling to wheel the suitcase through the crowd. ‘Don’t worry,’ she whispered to Charlotte. ‘Before they realise the form’s still missing, I’ll think of something.’
The boy who looked like Hugo was in front of her, strolling towards the exit. Six foot three and gangly in his pale knee-length shorts and red T-shirt, he had a navy hoodie casually tied around his neck. He turned as the door opened, and she saw his profile. Strong jawline, broad shoulders, annoying air of easy confidence. It was definitely him.
To get his attention, she touched his arm.
He stared at her as if she’d beamed down from a spaceship, his thick black eyebrows surprised. ‘Sophie?’
She pulled Charlotte close; Hugo might not appreciate joyful doggie bouncing. ‘I didn’t realise you were coming here.’
He examined an envelope he was holding. His room key. ‘Missed the grades for Oxford.’
Puzzling. He’d always aced exams. In the last school debate, he’d argued climate change didn’t exist — without notes, just to show off. They’d never been friends. But he was a familiar face in a squash of strangers and Charlotte was earnestly leaning into his legs. Odd. She didn’t usually do her full-on love-lean to people she’d just met.
Hugo’s T-shirt proclaimed San Diego Surfing Co. California in bold, black letters, interwoven through a faded, dark ring. He could have bought that anywhere but, being Hugo, he’d have visited. She pointed. ‘Souvenir?’
‘Yes, my sister lives there.’ He pushed his unruly hair from his forehead. Cut neatly around his ears and nape, but his fringe was way too long. ‘Going to the tower block?’
She nodded. ‘You’ve no luggage?’
‘In the car. I’ll get it later.’
Hugo and his mates all had cars, courtesy of Mummy and Daddy. New, sporty, pricey. Why couldn’t one of her friends have turned up, not posh boy Hugo?
Outside, students were handing out Mexican beer, promoting some new brand.
‘We had to bin the sombreros,’ said a tanned, cheerful girl, handing Hugo a plastic cup. ‘Cultural appropriation and all that.’
Sophie reluctantly declined the beer. Both her hands were fully occupied trundling the suitcase and holding Charlotte’s extendable lead.
‘It’s good to be sensitive,’ said Hugo, as they followed a path around the reception building, ‘but where does it end? Banning people from selling Scotch whisky in kilts?’
She shrugged. Today was stressful enough. She wasn’t up for an earnest discussion.
They turned a corner. Boxed in by blunt, angular buildings was a stone medieval church with gothic, stained-glass windows. It was like the chapel at school, but the steeple was larger and taller.
The church on the website … the other buildings had been airbrushed out. Unbelievable.
‘That’s unusual,' said Hugo.
‘Sad.’ The lone survivor of a concrete massacre.
‘Over there.’ Hugo was pointing at something above an arched window at the near side of the chapel.
Half concealed by a buttress was a carving, attached like a gargoyle, but it wasn’t a devil or grotesque figure. Two young faces looked in opposite directions, the back of their heads touching. The identical faces could have been male or female.
Sophie walked closer, stood on tip toe and touched it. The lines of the carving were confident and flowing, executed with real skill. For a moment, the church shimmered, there but not there, like a mirage. Feeling dizzy, she took a slow breath and the air tasted fresher, like a rain-swept draught into a dusty room. Summer smells … grass and pollen.
‘Are you okay?’ Hugo was regarding her with concern.
‘I’m fine, shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.’ Curious. At school, he’d rarely deigned to speak to her.
They walked past the church and downhill, through a maze of square, two-storey buildings, the path levelling off as they drew nearer the tower block. No one seemed suspicious about Charlotte. Sophie had googled Invisible Illnesses, memorised a convincing lie, but few people would be crass enough to interrogate a stranger about a disability. English reticence plus political correctness. Result.
‘Must be somewhere to practise cricket,’ said Hugo. ‘A pitch…’
‘You think?’ A cricket pitch here was as likely as a magic garden. But his doomed quest didn’t affect her. She’d always been baffled by the appeal of cricket, with matches lasting whole days. Could have played at school; the mixed team had been quite good, but she’d been happy with kickboxing and javelin.
She paused wheeling the suitcase to brush an annoying strand of hair from her face. ‘The sports complex looked cool on the website.’ Maybe she could do kickboxing? Javelin was impractical, required a field.
‘They’ll have cricket nets. Better than nothing.’ Hugo opened a door at the base of the tower block and went in. Above the doorframe, STUDENTS’ UNION AND ACCOMMODATION was signed in red, bulky letters.
Sophie followed with a skittish Charlotte. Beyond a convenience shop was a huge hall that took up most of the ground floor. Despite its size, it was as crowded and stifling as reception.
Charlotte pulled back towards the exit. She loved her day trips, exploring wind-swept beaches or the quiet gardens of stately homes; this hectic space was downright scary. Sophie gave her a reassuring pat. ‘Honestly, you’ll like it once we’ve settled in.’ Charlotte sat, put out her front legs and held them ramrod stiff. So began a well-rehearsed battle of wills. There could only be one winner and — after two treats — Charlotte consented to walk to heel, attracting respectful and admiring glances.
‘Wow, he’s a big dog.’ A podgy boy with ginger hair patted Charlotte’s head.
She should have bought a harness signed I AM A GIRL.
He handed her a leaflet. Behind him was a poster of a caged, brown and white beagle with haunted eyes.
‘They’re doing testing here?’
‘Not yet, but they’ve been granted funding. You’re welcome to join our protest. Noon tomorrow, outside the science labs.’
‘I’ll be there.’ Sophie walked away, putting the pamphlet in her bag. ‘When we get to our room,’ she told Charlotte, ‘we’ll call Aunty Wendy.’ Sophie’s aunt had Parkinson’s disease and checking on her was a daily routine.
A boy wearing a cap walked by and Charlotte shrank against Sophie’s legs in a very un-guide-dog way. Charlotte didn’t like hats, because she couldn’t see the person’s face. Sophie leaned against a partition wall and hugged her.
As she straightened, Sophie’s head nudged a small sepia photo, sending it wonky. She adjusted the dusty gilt frame and read the caption. Little Shorten, 1910. Two little girls wearing white pinafore dresses and solemn expressions were sitting on a bench by a village green. The fine hairs on the back of Sophie’s neck stood up and her skin prickled. Someone was curious. Watching, assessing.
She turned around. Busy, noisy — nothing weird.
The younger girl in the picture was about four, her round face gazing defiantly at the camera. ‘The university’s main entrance is on Shorten Road,’ she told Charlotte. ‘Little Shorten won’t be far. You’ll love all that green space.’
Without warning, Charlotte bolted, the crowd parting like a knife slash as she moved at alarming speed. Holding the lead, Sophie hurtled after her but couldn’t hurtle and keep her footing. She lost the lead and careered into grimy, vinyl flooring.