I am warming my stiffened fingers on the green pillar candle on my desk. Forest green. I bought it from Robert Sayle’s. The flame is dancing on the sloped ceiling of my attic room. The East Anglian wind is rattling my window. I am wearing flannel pyjamas, two pairs of socks, white Aran jumper, dressing gown, woolly hat and, as soon as I stop scribbling and get into bed, I’ll put on my gloves, and my feet will search for the hot water bottle. I reach for the jar of smooth peanut butter next to my Concise Oxford and eat a spoonful. My landlady says it’s wasteful to have the radiators so hot, they scorch. She has had the water temperature in the bathroom turned down, because it’s pointless having water so hot, you have to dilute it with cold. She tells me this is all character-building – something she clearly thinks I need. I can tell by the way she says, “You have a healthy appetite. If my children ate as much as you do, I wouldn’t worry about them” whenever she watches me during dinner. Not that I ever have dinner, except on Mondays, when there is no Evensong at King’s, and I am home from school in time for 6 p.m. The other evenings, I am not back till 6.45, by the time I cycle up the hill. My friends’ landladies keep their suppers in the oven for them but since my landlady has never offered this as an option, I don’t want to cause a fuss. Hence, the jar of smooth peanut butter and teaspoon, on my desk. I have no record or cassette player, and I need music like I need air to breathe. King’s College Chapel provides a nightly dose of divine musical nourishment to my soul, free of charge, even though it clashes with the meal intended for my body. I sigh and watch my breath cloud the air. I scoop another mound of peanut butter, and let its saltiness melt in my mouth. I don’t want to complain to the school accommodation officer. Perhaps there is nothing unusual about my landlady, and all the English are like that. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Besides, I am having far too much fun to mind the discomfort. Someday, I am going to be a writer, and writers all go to bed hungry and live in cold attics when they are young. I feel like a character from La Bohème.
I am nineteen, and have just left home for the first time. The first week was a nasty culture shock for me. I am half English but grew up on what the English refer to as the Continent. I bought a hairdryer and washed my hair as soon as I got back home. Imagine my shock when I opened the box and was confronted with a hairdryer with a lead – but no plug. I thought my landlady was teasing me when she assured me that was normal in England, and that you had to buy the plug separately, and wire it yourself. Then, I have never before seen a bathroom sink with separate spouts for hot and cold water. You have to swing your hands from one to the other, alternating between scorching your skin and shocking it with cold. On top of the sadistic plumbing, there’s the daily subcutaneous injections of sarcasm I get from the English about my accent. “Oh, that’s so American!” they mutter whenever I speak. Yes, I am half English but the British school abroad was more expensive than the American school, and you needed to wear a uniform made of a grey skirt and a cerise-burgundy blazer. My mother told me the story of Paul Revere, when I was a child, so I wouldn’t have been caught dead looking like a Redcoat. So, in the first few weeks, when the paper-cut comments about my accent were particularly deep, I often sat in my room, crying with anger and despair. Now, I know there is only one thing to do, and that is to beat them at their own game. I listen to them speak, and try and memorise the tight, chesty and imperceptibly slurred way they pronounce their words, as though they are discarding unwanted food on their plates. Once alone in my room, I try and produce as close as possible an imitation. I keep telling myself that one day, they will look up to me!
At night, before bed, I often take out my bicycle, a silver-grey Raleigh. I cycle past Fitzwilliam College and New Hall, acquiring speed just as the road dips downhill. A few more vigorous pushes on the pedals, and I am whizzing past Magdalene College, singing I Have Confidence in Me or My Favorite Things, from The Sound of Music, to myself. I have never seen the film, but my mother says it’s one of the best musicals. I came across the soundtrack in the music shop on Hobson Street, and bought it. My landlady sometimes allows me to use her record player and, as it’s the only record I own here, I play it all the time, and have learnt a few of the songs by heart. With any luck, the traffic lights on the corner with St John’s are green, so I fly into Trinity Street, past Heffers – the best bookshop in the world. They have a wonderful stationery department on Sidney Street, too. In my first week, I saw two undergraduates, their gowns slung over their shoulders, standing outside, discussing Plato. I pretended to be looking at the shop window, and listened. A whole new world, waiting for me to explore it. One I want to be a part of. One of the undergraduates had blond hair cropped very short at the back, mop flopping over one eye, like Rupert Brooke. Cambridge men are so handsome! I slow down on my bicycle as I see the spires of King’s College Chapel and Porter’s Lodge. This is where I come when I am feeling deeply unhappy or wildly happy. It is the place where I come to share my hopes and my dreams. It is where, every afternoon, after class, I rush to be first in the queue, so that I can get my favourite seat – at the edge of the second row, on the right-hand side as you walk past the organ screen, next to the Choral Scholars. I am quite smitten with the tall, curly-haired, mousy counter-tenor in the stalls across from me. He sings like an angel. I also regularly exchange looks with the tenor in the middle of the row, the one with mischievous green eyes and dark, tousled hair. All the Choral Scholars know me by sight, by now, but none of them ever says hello to me after Evensong. The tenor smiled at me, the other day. I wonder what his name is.
I love everything about this city. Everything here feels magical. The architecture looks as though it has been plucked out of a fairy tale. It is proud of its ancient stones which whisper stories of centuries of learning and ambitions. The sky changes its mood with dramatic speed. One moment, it is a vivid, Cyan blue. The next, the wind blows lead grey clouds from the Fens, over land so flat you feel the horizon goes on for ever. The Fens are an almost fluorescent green in contrast with the dark sky. On that green, jet black, glossy crows. Their raucous conversation is as inseparable a part of Cambridge, for me, as the elms in Grantchester Meadows, the weeping willows that sway over the Cam, the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the haunting tune of Greensleeves, and the brimming sense of hope. For me, this is a new world, a new life. Anything is possible here. It’s 1984. I am nineteen.
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I had coffee with a friend, in Notting Hill, today. Afterwards, I went to browse in a hardware store. I came across a tall, green pillar candle. Forest green. When I was nineteen, I had one just like it, on my desk, in Cambridge. I bought it and, this evening, lit it on my desk. There is the face of a nineteen year-old girl grinning in its flame. She is full of hope, and is inviting me to join her in the pursuit of her dreams, and the fulfilment of her many hopes. I smile back at her. She winks at me.
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