Never in my life, had I ever gotten lost, not once.
Well, I’m sure there were a few department store mis-adventures in my childhood that caused me to question how the hell I’d find my parents again, but had I ever gotten lost as an adult – or teenager for that matter – after stupidly forgetting a bus time table, train schedule or map?
Until that late Summer afternoon in Oxford that is…
I had gotten sick of the house-wife lifestyle that year, not that I didn’t love my home and kids but they were in their early twenties now and had moved out and on with their lives, my husband had decided he’d rather fall in love with a leathery tan and a girl named Chantal in Ibiza, or somewhere in Spain or Greece or, well wherever, I was too jaded to ask for details of where he was off to after our divorce. So it was just me at home, ironing my clothes, cleaning my kitchen, cooking my dinners, alone.
To be perfectly honest I wasn’t upset, or heart broken, I was just…bored is not the right word for it but it’s the only word I can think of to describe it. It was as if I had been left in a British version of Desperate Housewives; without the men, the illegitimate children or the drama.
I wanted to do something about it, so I, Veronica Middleton – no not a Kate relative – would apply to college, finally. When I was my son and daughter’s age I never thought about further education; I got a job, met my husband, settled down, and that was that. I was free now though, I could learn whatever I wanted to learn even if it was a bit late on in my life. So I searched the web, at first I considered doing the Open Uni…but the more I thought about it the more the idea of attending a full time university excited me; moving to a new place, attending lectures, going to the library every day…I had to go for it.
So I enrolled for an access placement at Montford College in Oxford, and August 14th was my official induction day. In my excitement for change and knowledge, I left with everything I needed…without directions to the damn college! I suppose it was the town itself that chose which university I wanted to study at, Oxford was a beautiful place that I knew quite well due to a couple of holidays down there, however, I over-estimated how well I actually knew my way around the town…because in reality I didn’t know it very well at all. I got lost almost as soon as I got off the bus, and for the first time in my life, I had no idea where to go, and only a short time to get an idea of where to go.
I was a shy housewife, so it didn’t occur to me to actually ask someone where the college was; so for a while I aimlessly looked around for some tourist sign posts but found none. I looked at my watch every few minutes and sighed as time moved on without me. Eventually, however, I realised something else I had left home without: a steaming mug of black coffee.
Maybe it wouldn’t take that long to find the college, I told myself, so maybe if I stopped at a café for a caffeine boost I could gather my confidence and ask someone for directions; hoping they wouldn’t think me an idiot for leaving home without them myself. I sat myself down at a window seat after placing my order – adding a naughty piece of chocolate cake to heal my nerves – and collected my thoughts.
“You alright there, love?” I heard a young voice suddenly say, I looked to the table next to mine at a girl my daughter’s age; with an elbow holding a large book open, and a cup of tea in her other hand.
“You’re a fresher, right?”
I blinked in surprised, was I that transparent?
“Em, yes.” I admitted, or a moment forgetting that ‘fresher’ was slang for new student, as my son had reminded me earlier. The girl chuckled and closed her book, picking up everything on her table.
“I knew it, I can recognise that look of trepidation anywhere.” She added, moving to the seat across from me, dumping her hippy-ish bag under the table.
I wasn’t used to strangers talking to me like this, well, other than the occasional OAP at the bus-stop mumbling about the weather…
“Mind if I sit?” She asked, already with her behind on the seat.
“Oh, no, go ahead.”
I watched her flip open her textbook, probably to the page she was last reading.
“I miss being a fresher, all that free stuff.” She said, taking a sip if her tea. “Oh, woops, Alicia Waterston.”
She reached out her hand for me to shake, making me notice that her wrists were practically coated in jewellery; the hand made stuff with feathers and beads that I didn’t think young people wore anymore.
“Veronica,” I greeted, with a smile, spreading the smile to the waitress as she came over with my cake and coffee “Middleton.”
“So what course are you here for?”
“Humanities, “ I answered, holding back a ‘what if I can’t do it’ sigh “English, History and the like.”
“Ah, the best place to start, just don’t get seduced into philosophy; interesting as sin but incredibly useless as a qualification.”
Drat, I thought, I was all ready to sign up to that subject when the time came…
“What do you do?” I asked in return.
“Oh, how interesting.”
“It’s not, believe me,” She said, bursting my bubble of another subject that had caught my eye in the prospectus… “Well, the history side to it is, but the more modern stuff…ay.”
I smiled in empathy, though wondered if it would be worth it anyway.
“So, have you got your first class today?”
“Sort of,” I answered, feeling the nerves run through me again; making me take a big bite of cake to shush it away. “Induction day.”
“Oi oi.” a new voice said, a young man who looked like James Dean walked over to Alicia and gave her a pat on the back.
Oh, what are the chances?
He sat down beside us, pulling the chair out from under the table so quick it made a squeak sound worse than a dying animal.
“Who’s your friend?” He asked Alicia, I cleared my throat, still feeling rather a-social.
“Veronica Middleton.” She introduced, waving her hand at me as if she was selling a car. I smiled at her friend and took a well needed sip of coffee.
“Sorry if I accidentally call you Kate.” he said, stealing a sip of coffee from his friend.
I laughed and shook my head, for once that joke wasn’t annoying.
“She’s a fresher,” Added, looking at her watch “When do you need to get to the induction, anyhow?”
“Um, 2pm.” I answered, hoping that was the right time.
“Ach loads of time.” Said Dean, “’Building’s only round the corner.”
“Oh!” I said, in relief. “Here’s me thinking it was probably on the other side of town!”
Alicia smiled as if she’d never seen anyone react the way I was reacting, to such a small worry; part of me wanted to keep quiet and stop making a fool of myself, but the other part of me was gradually starting to feel too comfortable to even care. Me? Not caring about embarrassing myself? Oh God, what did they put in the coffee?
“Dean’s doing a Politics & Philosophy Joint Honours degree.” Alicia told me, gently slapping his hand away as he tried to steal a sip of her tea.
“I was just telling Veronica how very useful a qualification Philosophy is.”
“Oh really?” Dean asked as he rolled his eyes, for a moment I thought his annoyance was dead serious till a glint re-appeared in them mid-roll.
I held down a smile as they began bickering, playfully.
“I really like how, transcendental, and vital it is in most modern vocations.” She joked.
“Oh this coming from the girl who’s doing International Politics without the desire to neither – uh vanilla latte please – get a job actually IN politics, nor leave the country?”
“Hey, it’s a useful degree to have for other jobs too!”
I glanced at the waitress who had just taken Dean’s order, she raised a long and neatly plucked eyebrow, and smirked subtly.
“Every week.” She whispered to me, shaking her head, before walking back to the till.
For the next half an hour we sat chatting, sharing interests, opinions, and I contently listened to their stories of what was and had been going on around the town. I was very comfortable, unlike how I would have been feeling if I was back home chatting with one of my set-in-their-ways neighbors. Time was passing by so slowly, but, so quickly at the same time – not that such a sentence makes any sense at all, but though only half an hour had passed; I felt like I had been sitting chatting to these intriguing people for hours, yet it had only felt like moments since I stepped – or rather wobbled – off of the number 8 bus.
“Ooh, it’s twenty to two.” Dean said, examining his vintage watch. “You should probably head over to the uni now.”
“Yeah, we’ll walk you over.” Alicia added with a sunny smile, picking up her bag and textbook.
“Yes, uh…did you mean the college?” I asked…
“Nah the—oh…” Dean paused, as Alicia’s eyes widened.
“You’re not going to the university are you?” He asked, standing up from his seat.
“No, it’s Montford College, I thought it’d be best if I started there first, before thinking about university…what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing, well…” Dean began, grabbing his things quickly “It’s sort of, time to run.”
Quicker than an Olympic athlete being pumped full of pure caffeine and sugar, Dean bolted out of the café. I stared at the invisible burn mark he left on the floor, startled.
“Yeah so here’s the thing,” Alicia began “We thought you were going to the uni, which is just around the corner, the college however is over 20 minutes away, so, yeah, run!”
I watched as Alicia coated Dean’s tracks in even more metaphorical dust, standing frozen to the spot for a few seconds, not even sure what do to.
I’d taken what felt like an eternity to decide whether or not to apply for the college course, then waited what felt like infinity for the acceptance letter to arrive – my worries that my childhood A-Levels weren’t good enough to get me in – and I’d waited a pointless forever to start a new life even though my old one had died long ago…and now, things were moving so quickly. I had to let it move quickly, I had to run with it all. So I did, I grabbed my belongings and ran after my two new acquaintances.
I had 20 minutes to get to a place that – according to Alicia’s rough estimate -was a full 20 minutes away, and on top of that my middle aged legs were proving not entirely sports-woman-like. The more I ran however, the better it began to feel, and soon I was caught up with Alicia and Dean who were laughing and squealing as they narrowly avoided tripping over bins, kerbs and even people. I think those moments between my ridiculous journey to the college from the café, and the moment the strong Summer sunshine broke free from the clouds that were hiding it, was the most alive I’d ever felt, I’d still say the happiest moments in my life was when my children were born; and the many moments I’d spend with them over the years, but those moments during the dash were just pure…freedom. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to run to the college, but I didn’t care, I knew I’d get there eventually and the journey was more than worth it. I knew I’d get there.
I was a little sad that Alicia and Dean didn’t go to the same classes – never mind the same institution – as me, but it didn’t matter too much; as not only was I tempted to make that homely little café one of my student haunts, but I knew that I had the chance to meet countless new faces in the course I was so glad I signed up for; for once the idea didn’t make me nervous, but excited.
Yep, they definitely put something in my coffee!
Dedicated to the late author, Maeve Binchy.
[Image By Idea Go, edited by SW]